85% of tar sands must stay in the ground to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper's environment minister meeting with provincial and territorial leaders to discuss post-2020 carbon emission targets in late February, the federal election this October, the pivotal United Nations climate summit in December, and a federal government decision expected on the Energy East pipeline just a few month later by May 2016, the release yesterday of a new report on what Canada must to do to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius is of critical importance.

The Canadian Press reports, "British researchers [from University College London] have concluded that most of Canada's [tar] sands will have to be left in the ground if the world gets serious about climate change. The report, published in the journal Nature, says three-quarters of all Canada's oil reserves and 85 per cent of its [tar] sands can't be burned if the world wants to limit global warming."

"The report also concludes that no country's Arctic energy resources can be developed if global temperature increases are to be kept manageable. It adds that about one-quarter of Canada's natural gas reserves and four-fifths of its coal would also have to be left in the ground."

CBC adds, "[The study] says for the world to have a reasonable prospect of meeting the target, no more than 7.5 billion barrels of oil from the [tar] sands can be produced by 2050 — a mere 15 per cent of viable reserves and only about one per cent of total bitumen." And the Globe and Mail further notes, "Domestic estimates of Alberta’s oil reserves come in at about 168 billion barrels, with hundreds of billions more available for extraction if future oil prices make the resource more attractive. The study uses a more conservative estimate of 48 billion barrels as the current reserve and then finds that only 7.5 billion barrels of that, or about 15 per cent, can be used by 2050 as part of the global allotment of fossil-fuel use in a two-degree scenario."

In response to this study, Natural Resources Canada said, "The majority [of the world's energy] will come from fossil fuels, even under its most stringent greenhouse gas reduction forecast. The choice is whether to use energy from a secure, environmentally responsible, transparent country like Canada, or to seek energy from less stable countries without responsible environmental policies." And Andrew Leach, the Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Alberta, says that even using 25 per cent of Canada's oil reserves between now and 2050 would lead to growth above current rates of production.

In terms of production, in early October 2014, Canada was exporting about 2.98 million barrels per day of crude to the United States. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has said they expect oil production to reach 3.91 million barrels per day in 2015 and 6.44 million barrels per day by 2030. And in terms of meeting our carbon emission target, the Globe and Mail has reported that documents submitted by the Harper government to the United Nations in December 2013, "show that, without further policy action, Canada’s emissions would be 734 megatonnes by 2020, or 20 per cent higher than the target of 612 megatonnes [that the Harper government agreed to at the United Nations climate summit in 2009]."

The Council of Canadians is against the proposed Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Energy East, Trans Mountain and Arctic Gateway pipelines. Together, those pipelines would move about 3.45 million barrels of oil per day or about 1.26 billion barrels a year. If all of these pipelines were to become operational, they would exceed the 7.5 billion barrel limit noted in this British study in less than six years.

And as now supported by this study, we have called for a moratorium on the offshore extraction of oil and gas from Arctic, an end to fracking, and opposed coal export terminals in British Columbia. As an alternative, we have called for the development of sustainable energy sources in a joint report with the Canadian Labour Congress titled Green, Decent and Public.

We were also present for the climate talks in Lima in 2014, Cancun in 2010 and Copenhagen in 2009. At those summits, we called on the Harper government to commit to an emissions reduction target of at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. We have also stated that Canada's fair contribution to climate adaptation for the Global South should be $4 billion yearly. And we have argued for inclusion and a democratization of the climate change negotiations process. The next United Nations climate summit - COP 21 - will take place November 30 to December 11 in Paris.

Further reading
85% of oilsands can't be burned if world to limit global warming: report (Canadian Press)
Climate change study says most of Canada's oil reserves should be left underground (CBC)
Oil sands must remain largely unexploited to meet climate target, study finds (The Globe and Mail)