The oil sands, fairness, and cumulative emissions

by Milan on April 20, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Ethics, Oil sands

The Council of Canadians estimates that burning all of Canada’s oil sands, along with all of the shale oil in the United States, would increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 49 to 65 parts per million (ppm).

Consider for a moment what that means, in terms of fairness.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 290ppm. It had already been elevated from pre-human levels as a consequence of deforestation, but the rate of increase was nothing like what it became once we started burning coal, oil, and gas in large quantities.

Let’s accept, for the moment, that the movement has the right idea, and the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere should be kept below 350ppm. If so, the total increase in concentration that human beings can safely produce is about 60ppm. This is complicated a bit because not all the CO2 we emit remains in the atmosphere. Some, for instance, gets dissolved into the oceans, making them more acidic. If we very roughly assume that half of the CO2 we emit remains in the atmosphere, that means safe human emissions could be about twice what the 60ppm figure originally suggested. Remember, that is the figure for the total safe change we can produce, globally and across all human generations.

Is it fair for 49 to 65ppm of that 120ppm or so to come just from these unconventional oil operations in North America? The idea that about half of all historical human emissions should be allowed to come from a source that largely exists to provide transportation fuels to a small segment of the total human population seems preposterous. Even if the safe level is higher than the 350 people believe (say, 450-500ppm), the oil sands and oil shales would still represent an unreasonably large portion of the total.

There are, of course, some caveats that should be raised here. Firstly, it may never make economic sense to extract and process all this unconventional oil. Shale oil, in particular, often requires more energy to extract than it contains. Even with oil prices far higher than they are now, economic considerations alone might keep some of this fuel underground. Secondly, the world is not on track to stabilize below 350ppm. At the time of writing, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was already above 390ppm. If we were to aggressively scale back emissions, the take-up of CO2 by the oceans and other sinks could probably take us back below 350ppm again, but that is far from what the world is actually doing. As such, the share of the oil sands and oil shales in total human emissions is smaller than it would be if they were actually being constrained to a safe level.


Nonetheless, I think all of the above constitutes a strong moral case against oil sands expansion. While there are people out there living in extreme poverty who might rightly be able to claim the right to emit greenhouse gases to improve their lives, those of us living in North America used up our fair share of emissions long ago. Furthermore, we have the wealth and technologies required to make the transition to climate-neutral forms of energy and transport.

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. January 23, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Outside Canada, most complaints are about the tar sands’ CO2 emissions. Here too, confusion abounds. Some critics, calculating emissions from extraction through to refining (“well to tank”), say fuel sourced from the sands is up to three times more carbon-intensive than others consumed in America. But from “well to wheels”, counting emissions from cars’ exhaust pipes, tar sands are only 5-15% dirtier, says IHS CERA. Most CO2 comes from burning the petrol, not digging up the oil.

Whatever the measure, Alberta lacks an adequate strategy to deal with emissions. Its climate-change targets would allow emissions to grow until 2020. And those from the tar sands could triple in the next decade, as more oil is extracted by steam-based methods. Still, the sands are carbon-emitting minnows. Just 5% of Canada’s CO2, about 0.1% of the world total, comes from the developments, says CAPP. If people are serious about fighting climate change, argues Dr Keith, they should worry first about coal-fired electricity, whose emissions in America dwarf those from the tar sands. Andrew Leach, of the Alberta School of Business, calculates that the tar sands create about C$500 of value-added per tonne of CO2, against C$20-30 from coal-fired power stations.

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