Photo: Weaver study offers fossil fuels warning

Damage from the tar sands may be irreversible and pose significant environmental risk to Alberta. (Credit: Gord McKenna)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

It was inevitable that climate change deniers and some oil industry promoters would misinterpret a study by scientist Andrew Weaver before reading beyond the headlines. A letter in the Calgary Herald actually claimed that "Weaver's revelation ... raises even more skepticism about the entire science behind global warming."

The writer went on to argue that the report by University of Victoria climate scientist Weaver and PhD student Neil Swart is an "awakening for David Suzuki and his environmental followers."

It's typical of the nonsense people who understand science have to put up with every day. The study, published in Nature, says the opposite.

Weaver and Swart set out to answer a simple question: "How much global warming would occur if we completely burned a variety of fossil fuel resources?" Their conclusion that burning all the coal or all the gas from the entire world's resource bases would raise global average temperatures more than burning all the Alberta tar sands reserves is hardly a surprise.

Subscribe to Science Matters

What is surprising is their finding that emissions from burning all the economically viable oil from the tar sands would only contribute to a 0.03°C rise in world temperatures, and burning the entire tar sands oil in place would add 0.36° C. That may not seem like much, but we need to put it in context.

First, the study looked only at the emissions from burning the fuels and not from extracting, refining, or transporting them. The report's authors explain that these additional emissions "would come from the other resource pools and shouldn't be double-counted."

If we are to avoid a 2° C increase in global temperatures, each person in the world would be allocated 80 tonnes of emissions over the next 50 years. The emissions from burning all the tar sands oil that is now economically viable (the reserves) would represent 64 tonnes of carbon for each of the 340 million people in the U.S. and Canada — about 75 per cent of the U.S. and Canada's global per capita allocation. If we include emissions from the extraction process, it rises to 90 per cent or more.

The study doesn't consider any other environmental consequences of the tar sands either, from water use and pollution to destruction of boreal habitat. In fact, a recently uncovered memo prepared for the federal government claims that damage from the tar sands may be irreversible and could pose a "significant environmental and financial risk to the province of Alberta." The memo focused on rising emissions and damage from tailings ponds, among other effects. It concluded that "the cumulative impacts of oilsands development are not adequately understood."

Our rush to get at the bitumen is also threatening wildlife and habitat. Conservation officers killed 145 black bears that got too close to the operations last year. And rather than protecting caribou habitat from destruction as extraction increases, the federal government has decided to kill wolves that prey on caribou instead.

On the political front, the European Union recently failed to pass its Fuel Quality Directive, which would have labelled tar sands oil as carbon intensive and undesirable for import, but that fight isn't over.

As I've said before, we're not going to stop using oil overnight, so we will continue to use tar sands products, at least in the short to medium term. But the best ways to limit environmental impacts are to slow down and to ensure the highest environmental standards are met and that we are getting maximum value for the oil to which all Canadians have a right.

As Weaver and Swart conclude: "If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2° C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels."

That doesn't mean putting pipelines through pristine wilderness, extracting bitumen as quickly as possible, and shipping it off to China in supertankers. It does mean we have to find ways to stop using coal and gas as well as oil. As Weaver points out, "The tar sands are a symptom of a bigger problem. The bigger problem is our societal dependence on fossil fuels."

March 1, 2012

Read more

Post a comment


Feb 05, 2013
8:29 PM

Jim, you say that you are a scientist. Would you care to identify yourself, and link to the articles that you have had published in peer-reviewed journals?

Mar 22, 2012
9:15 AM

I am no scientist but i live in fort mcmurray and i see how the goverment is raping mother earth. i live in was a nice place for 47 years my home my family home we trap hear. but i was taught to love the thing around me. and take what you need. and than the people came and raping the land and killing trees and animal the river and lakes trying out . srd selling land to the highs bid. its to late david suzuki dig in and let mother nature prosecute them . 29 in march i have not seen our heard that one before.

Mar 14, 2012
8:29 PM

To the self proclaimed"scientist" Jim who wrote so scientifically on march 9/12: well educated people such as myself find your obvious lack of "Gestalt" humorous and sad. The big picture is not whether oil from tar sands emits a limited percentage of CO2, it is cumulative effects of 7B people and counting using a natural resource that was never intended for such mass extraction and use. Isn't it logical that we as a global community, look to renewable energy sources? If Money was taken out of the equation, these discussions would be pointless, as were your comments. And, DSF posted it— that was grand!

Mar 11, 2012
7:54 AM

Earth Hour-I decided to make earth hour into earth month and then decided to make it two months, March and April. I started Feb 28th. The only electricity I am using in my house is to power the refridgerator and to keep the house at 12 C. No lights, computer (I am sending this from a friends place), TV, stove, microwave, washer, dryer or hot water heater. I will also not drive for these two months. Who can join me in this? David, can you do this?

Mar 09, 2012
3:45 PM

"It's typical of the nonsense people who understand science have to put up with every day…"

Really? Everyone who disagrees with you doesn't "understand science"? :)

That’s a pretty funny claim to make. I’m a scientist and what I see here is that you’ve done nothing to refute the obvious results of the study: tar sands is practically irrelevant in the global carbon emissions budget.

What's really much more typical is that the "science" reported by politically motivated and heavily biased environmental organizations is much more spin than science. The more environmentalists like Suzuki, McKibben and James Hansen carp on about tar sands, what’s becoming most obvious is that they’re the ones that don’t quite get – or simply deny – the science.

Mar 07, 2012
10:10 PM

The real problem should be stated as how to stop environmental destruction. Instead we find ourselves fixated on a ploy to tax energy use in general. Nor should we forget emissions are international in nature and growing fastest where people are pushing a conversion to the wasteful lifestyle which is the problem. Not that exploiting the tar sands was ever anything but an exercise in idiocy.

Mar 07, 2012
2:06 PM

Nicely written. But the largest challenges that face humans (Canadians), addressed in the last stanza, is the values and progression of our nation. Being a smaller (population wise) nation, we have the ability to be progressive leaders — to change economic, social, and environmental values for the better of not just one body but of all (including not our nation). Canada should be a nation which is looked upon to have progressive policies and management techniques, that use the research and knowledge we have — alas why is this not happening? Why do we dwell on the past so much then continue towards an abyss? Sustainability is a word thrown around everywhere, but the practicality of it, I have yet to witness in my lifetime.

As there was a career fair in UNI today, I talked to the DFO (Oceans and Fisheries Canada — formerly Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada) — which the gentleman said after discussing water security issues, "I have a shirt from David Suzuki [from the foundation I assumed] that says, 'Put the ECO back in economics'". Not that I entirely disagree, just was it ever there?

Mar 07, 2012
10:24 AM

Weaver left out the part where C02 above 400 PPM will have little or no effect. How did the earth survive when C02 was many times higher than it is now?

Mar 02, 2012
3:46 PM

Tar Sands? Really? Pardon me, but who distiled all of the coal to produce the Tar? and then mix it with sand and then bury it way back when…they sure caused a lot of energy to be wasted. Now we have to mine this Tar sand and make it into Oil? Wait a minute, thats not right. Can you Canadians really make Oil out of Tar? Is this like Fracking? The Fracking Tar Sands? Or should it be called Hydraulic Fracturing and Oil or Bituminous Sand? Yah! I know I'm a smart ass. You don't have to change anything…I'm still going to keep enjoying your articles…glen

Mar 02, 2012
1:56 PM

Oil sands are destroying caribou habitat. How to save the caribou? The Canadian answer: kill the wolves. I feel so angry, embarrassed and helpless.

Mar 02, 2012
1:42 PM

To all the world's political leadership, including our current CDN Harper govt,what is there to argue about regarding what David Suzuki and others are saying about the serious LONGTERM consequences of continued exploration of fossil fuels. The public is fickle but not stupid. We mandated the use of seatbelts, implemented strict DWI laws, have put men on the moon, but we can not seem to mobilize the best to develop cars that are not based on that dear old relic of the past: the combustible engine. I ask all the millionaires and billionaires in the world to combine their bounties and make scientific history. Invest in engineering programs that will create a product that WILL not be circumvented by big oil tactics. If political leaders see only dollars, than let's put our money towards something that actually benefits everyone: affordable cars that are sustainable. And, watch what will happen.

Mar 02, 2012
12:42 PM

The Swart-Weaver study does not imply the possible existence of a win-win situation for anybody. Temporarily offsetting some global coal use with Tar sands oil at the expense of permanent damage to Alberta landscapes and BC coastal and wilderness areas does not amount to an environmental plus.

I found it very disturbing to learn that we have government representatives like Peter Kent able to coldly justify the killing of innocent wild animals in a cruel attempt to control the effects Tar sands activities have had on the local ecology.

Mar 02, 2012
9:47 AM

It would be helpful for the author to offer suggestions as to how we as individuals can assist in healing these challenges….thank you!

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to remove product/service endorsements and refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »