Photo: Should Canada sell its tar sands oil to China? It is a decision Canadians need to make.

Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Credit: kk+ via Flickr)

By Winnie Hwo, Climate Change and Clean Energy Campaigner

Will selling tar sands oil to China help that country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? Dr. Wenran Jiang argues it will. In a talk at UBC titled "Putting Environment into the Canada-China Energy Equation", Dr. Jiang said China burns lots of coal and burning coal creates high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. If Canada sells more tar sands bitumen to China, he said, we can help China lower its GHG emissions because burning oil creates fewer emissions than burning coal.

Dr. Jiang — who is the MacTaggart Chair at the University of Alberta, a senior adviser to the Alberta government and a frequent contributor to the Financial Post and CBC — gave his 90-minute presentation as the first of the China in Global Perspective: The Energy-Sustainability Nexus series hosted by the Institute of Asian Research, with Carbon Talks, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and the Liu Centre for Global Issues.

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Since 2006, China has surpassed the U.S. as the world's top overall greenhouse gas emitter. Although China's current per capita GHG emissions are 6.8 tonnes per year, lower than the U.S.'s 16.9 tonnes and Canada's 16.15 tonnes a year, at the existing rate of industrial and domestic growth in China, per capita GHG emissions could surpass those of the U.S. by 2017. Xie Zhenhua, vice chair of China's National Development and Reform Commission, said last year that this is not an option.

China's GHG emissions and addiction to coal need to be reined in. China gets 70 per cent of its energy from coal, and nine per cent from renewable sources including wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. Four per cent is from natural gas and 15 per cent from petroleum, mainly from Africa and the Middle East.

As a Chinese Canadian, I may be expected to cheer for a plan that seemingly helps our economy while lowering China's GHG emissions. But I don't!

According to Dr. Jiang's presentation, China's "explosive" industrial growth, the expansion of the middle class and increasing urbanization will force an ever-expanding demand for fossil fuels. However, China's main fossil fuel — coal — will lead to even more environmental degradation and GHG emissions. Dr. Jiang said China is now the largest auto consumer in the world, that 70 per cent of China's water is polluted, that 90 per cent of global electronic waste is dumped in southern China, not to mention the burning of coal and other fossil fuels in China which made up 90 per cent of China's fuel source. Beijing has become the poster boy for poor air quality capitals of the world. The total sum of China's pollution, according to Dr. Jiang, is costing the Chinese economy $200 billion US a year.

To enhance energy security, Dr. Jiang said, China should buy Canadian oil, because 80 per cent of China's petroleum is currently imported from politically and socially unstable countries in Africa, the Middle East and South America. Dr. Jiang emphasized that China spends $230 billion a year on overall foreign purchases and is expected to spend $500 billion by 2015. Selling Alberta tar sands bitumen to China would allow Canada to take advantage of this vast investment opportunity. But the argument is flawed.

Despite being the world's number one GHG emitter, China introduced its National Climate Change Program in 2007. The program was followed by the 2008 white paper, China's Actions and Policies on Climate Change. Although China is still burning way too much fossil fuel, it is also the top renewable energy investor in the world.

According to renowned climate campaigner Bill McKibben, 250-million Chinese are heating their water with solar panels. The International Solar Energy Society also indicated that solar panels are widely used by farmers in rural China. The country is expected to expand its use of renewables from nine per cent of national energy consumption to 15 per cent by 2020. This year, China's highest GHG-emitting province, Guangdong, has also set a target to increase its share of non-fossil fuel to 20 per cent of total energy consumption by 2015.

As for China's rising demand for automobiles, Dr. Jiang's presentation has omitted a key development in the nation's domestic scene. As more and more Chinese switch from bicycles to vehicles, Chinese companies and the central government are also investing more in electric cars. China has already committed $15 billion to new vehicle technology research and development over the next eight years, leading to its target of becoming the world's largest electric auto market by 2020. What do all of the above developments mean for Canadian oil sands? It would only highlight the lack of competitiveness of our tar sands as the demand for fossil fuel will prove obsolete in the near future.

As for Canada, we are still missing a Climate Accountability Act which means we cannot even commit to reducing our GHG emission by 80% in 2050. We have no plans to shift the nation to an energy future based more on renewables than fossil fuels and we have no plans that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels experts agree are required to avoid dangerous climate change. Instead, our young people can only watch as the adults sell their future to maintain and pay for an unsustainable present. As Canada pulls out of the Kyoto Protocol, we must endure increasing GHG emissions and more environmental disasters because of the prospect of building a twin pipeline to carry our bitumen from Alberta to Asia on supertankers, through one of the most ecologically pristine areas in the world. This is not a future I am willing to endure, neither am I willing to leave for my kid.

Canada can help China to lower its GHG emissions. But the answer does not lie in feeding China more fossil fuel. The solution is for the two nations to help each other in speeding up a renewable energy future. Instead of taking advantage of China's multi-billion dollar investment in dirty oil and coal, Canada should play the role of a loyal friend that Dr. Norman Bethune once was to China and the Chinese people. Canadians can help China to move to a clean energy future from which both nations can benefit.

March 5, 2012

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Jul 17, 2013
7:37 AM

Thanks once more for your calm cool collected and informed views. You give me hope in a day and age where I find it hard to find any common sense in Canada. Corporations have far too much control of our Government, and are now spamming citizens to convert their beliefs to short term gain, and to hell with the environment. Memories are very, very short. Keep up the excellent work!

Sadly fools who spew forth propoganda of Job s Jobs Jobs! are too silly to understand that environmentally sustainable methodologies create jobs as well.

I’d covert to geothermal today, if we had an energy policy that would assist me, and loan me the money Today- to create jobs TODAY, and in MY community, not Alberta — that I could pay off over time on my then defunct gas bill. Pay the same amount for however long it took, then could be free of energy bills.

Ditto solar water heaters

Who wouldn’t want this?

Aug 09, 2012
3:40 PM

David Suzuki for Prime Minister of Canada,eh?

Glad your here and on our side as Canadians,my Friend.


Mar 20, 2012
8:44 PM

I like John's comment and agree that even if we sell all of our oil away or keep it and sell it off gradually, we will be without oil one day and so will China and the rest of the world. In that case we need to contain the sale of our oil sands to keep it from going faster and to the highest bidder. Think of it like a well and you have the last water in the desert.

We also really need to start changing our heating habits in Canada from natural gas and oil to wood pellet technology at a faster rate to get millions of households and businesses on board. It's a great fuel and can be made from fast-growth shrub woods.

Education is the real key though. We need to have programs in place to consistently teach young and old about the advantages to constructive conservation methods and not to be destructive in our lives. In our household, we heat 100% with pellet fuel, no constant air conditioning in the house, we plan every trip to it's fullest in our vehicles, we we recycle 99% of all we throw out. We conserve our water and use every drop for drinking, plants or pets and use rainwater for our outdoor plants. We also do the little things like building maintenance to keep our homes and cars highly efficient. We can all do better every day and should strive for that goal. After all it's our Canadian Heritage we are protecting in the long run.

Mar 15, 2012
10:45 AM

The issue for me isn't so much about who we sell tar sands oil to or not but rather should we be producing tar sands oil at all right now? The ridiculous rates of use of natural gas in the cracking process and the resulting GHGs, leave aside the pollution, beg the question of whether it would be better to sell them the natural gas and leave the bitumen in the ground until we can harvest it cleanly and efficiently. Isn't it just dumb to spend 0.8 BTU or more of Natural gas to get 1 BTU of oil out?

Consider also, what does the world look like 50 years after "Peak Oil"? In 10 or 20 years from now, would we even be able to ship that Oil to China? What then?

Mar 09, 2012
3:23 PM

Oh my. Another misguided missive against "dirty" tar sands oil.

Let me lay it out for you:

Tar Sands Oil = jobs jobs = tax revenue tax revenue = research dollars research dollars = better energy solutions

How do you think China got $15B to spend on electric vehicles?

Mar 07, 2012
7:40 AM

Let's face facts: The real reason China needs oil is not to reduce coal consumption it's because you can't power internal combustion engines with it. The coal will still get burned anyway you look at it.

Electric cars are not an effective way to reduce green house gas emission until we reduce their weight and speed limits to the point were renewables can power them.

I completely agree with the last thought about working with China on development of renewables technology and markets. This makes total sense and I think we would make good partners in that.

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