People look at the oil sands and say: “Yes, Canada is profiting off the destruction of the whole world, but we are a small part of the problem. China is doing so much worse, building new coal-fired power plants every week. Why should we deprive ourselves, when others will produce ruin for us all anyhow?”
There are many problems with this analysis. For one thing, China is pursuing its current model of development because it seems to have worked for countries like Canada, the United States, and Japan. If the richest and most technologically able countries get serious about a zero-carbon energy system, and they show that it can be done, countries that are developing rapidly now will have a new model to at least consider. Given the many disadvantages of fossil fuels, from air pollution to dependence on exports from volatile regions, a development strategy that is both credible and focused on renewables could have a lot of appeal in places like China, India, and Brazil.
Secondly, there is a suicide pact mentality that accompanies the decision to keep emitting greenhouse gas pollution recklessly because others are doing so. It is true that if just Canada abstains, and suffers lost resource revenues because of it, climate change will probably proceed to about the same extent as it would if Canada just kept cashing in on oil and gas. But the behaviour of other states is not independent of our behaviour, and other people care about the reasons for our actions. If Canada said: “We are going to leave fossil fuels underground, for the good of all humanity. We urge you to do the same.” it would at least advance the international discussion and focus attention on the key question of what proportion of all the world’s fossil fuels we choose to burn.
Thirdly, Canada’s impact is not trivial. When politicians boast about how the oil sands are a reserve as large as those of Saudi Arabia it should make us worried. Burning massive reserves of fossil fuel produces massive amounts of greenhouse gas pollution, even if you do manage to avoid causing too much local air and water pollution in the process of digging those fuels up. Canada’s giant fossil fuel reserves are a threat to the whole world, insofar as they are capable of making climate change that much more dangerous.
Canada cannot avert disaster on its own. Nobody can. But universal disaster is nonetheless an outcome we must avoid, and achieving that requires overcoming a status quo system that remains determined to burn all the world’s coal, oil, and gas and only then start thinking seriously about what energy sources will replace them. We need to do better than that, and one way to contribute to that effort is to refuse to use the bad behaviour of others as an excuse to continue to behave badly ourselves.