Canada's oil sands are midway down the pack of the world's climate change villains, according to a new Greenpeace report ranking potential carbon emissions from the globe's top energy developments.
Climate enemies numbers 1 and 2 — by far — are expanding coal projects in Australia and China, the report says. The oil sands don't appear until fifth spot, which is shared with projects in Iraq and the United States.
"Coal is the biggest threat globally," said Keith Stewart, one of the report's authors.
"Sometimes, we get a little parochial in Canada — we think that the whole world is entirely focused on tar sands as the biggest problem. What we're saying here is that it's one of the biggest problems."
The report, using data from the International Energy Agency, looks at what it considers the top 14 growth areas for fossil fuel production over the next few years, from expanded offshore drilling in Brazil to new gas production in Africa. It was released the same day the governor of Nebraska approved an oil sands pipeline through his state and as world leaders met in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the global economy.
The report says the oil sands could be emitting 420 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2020, from both production and consumption. The shale gas boom in the U.S. could add 280 million tonnes, with expanded American coal exports good for another 420 million tonnes.
New coal from Indonesia would cough up 460 million tonnes and Iraqi production growth would kick in another 420 million tonnes.
But those are wisps in a windstorm compared with China and Australia, where the report says booming coal production will create 1,400 million tonnes and 720 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gases a year by 2020.
Some of those developments are well under way. The oil sands already produce about 1.4 million barrels per day.
Some of the estimates are more speculative. The report suggests oil from the Arctic will produce 520 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020, even though offshore drilling in the region has barely begun.
The point, Mr. Stewart said, is to consider the cumulative climate-change impacts of those developments before they're fully realized.
"These are major initiatives that government and industry are trying to move forward and if we're serious about stopping climate change, we have to stop these projects as a first order of business."
The report calculates that carbon emissions from these 14 developments would take CO2 levels right to the edge of pushing global warming past 2 degrees, the point at which many scientists believe catastrophic climate change would set in. And because they are large-scale, infrastructure-intensive developments, they would lock those emissions in for many years.
"Once you've built the project, it's less likely to shut it down than if you choose to build something else instead," Mr. Stewart said.
Greenpeace hopes the report will focus public attention on specific projects and create a global perspective.
"One of the pushbacks we get from industry in every single country where we work is that, 'Oh, if you stop this project it doesn't make a difference because all these other things are happening,' " he said. "We're showing ... if we (stop) these major things, it will make a significant difference."
The Greenpeace report echoes findings released last February from one of Canada's top climate scientists. Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria calculated that coal, not oil sands, was the primary global warming threat simply because of its abundance and popularity.
"(The study is) actually reporting what the scientific community's been saying," said Mr. Weaver, who will run as a Green Party candidate in the next B.C. provincial election. "China's emissions are going up 10 per cent a year — staggering emissions growth."
Mr. Weaver points out there's plenty of blame to go around. While China and Australia are the jewels in King Coal's crown, the European Union is building new coal-fired power plants and Canada is ramping up coal exports through the port of Vancouver.
He agreed that governments need to start thinking about the future consequences of development today.
"If we want to deal with (climate change), we've got to move on it now because the type of commitments we're making to future emissions through the infrastructure projects that are in place are going to take us to a position where the consequences are huge."