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Why the Oil Sands Matter to Climate Policy in Canada

Clare Demerse is Director, Climate Change, at the Pembina Institute. This post originally appeared in its full form on the Pembina Institute's website.

Anyone who works on climate change policy in Canada, like I do, ends up talking about the oil sands on a daily basis.

The massive development reshaping parts of Alberta's landscape attracts criticism like no other project in Canada, and those concerns don't stop at our borders. But as its public profile has grown, some have argued that the oil sands sector is being unfairly singled out. After all, the oil sands account for less than seven per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas pollution — far less than the emissions from coal, transportation or heating our homes.

In our work at the Pembina Institute, we're sometimes asked to justify why we put so much emphasis on one relatively small piece of Canada's emissions puzzle.

For my colleagues in Alberta, the answer to the question "why do you spend so much time on the oil sands?" might involve water, caribou, the consequences of an overheated economy or the local air pollution. But I work on the federal government's climate policy in Ottawa, so the oil sands matter to me because of what they mean for Canada's approach to tackling climate change.

Oil Sands as Outlier

No one could make the case about why the oil sands matter better than Environment Canada just did. In late July, the department published a document called Canada's Emissions Trends, which provides an up-to-date projection of greenhouse gas pollution under a "business as usual" scenario — in other words, our emissions future unless governments take stronger actions than they have to date.

This document provides really important data, so we were very glad to see it made public. But the picture it paints of where oil sands emissions are heading is — to put it mildly — not pretty.

Over the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands have grown by over 150 per cent. From 2005 to 2020, Environment Canada's number show, they're going to keep right on growing, tripling from 30 million tonnes in 2005 to 92 million tonnes in 2020. That represents 12 per cent of Canada's projected national emissions in 2020, more than the total for any province except Alberta and Ontario.

That makes the oil sands sector very unique. In other parts of Canada's economy, emissions are expected to grow much more slowly, or even to drop as technologies improve or federal or provincial emission reduction policies take effect. Most notably, electricity emissions are expected to fall by 31 million tonnes in Canada by 2020 in the absence of new government policies — while oil sands expansion is forecast to increase emissions by twice that much over the same period. (It's worth noting that the federal government has already outlined a regulatory approach to coal-fired electricity detailed enough that it's been included in Environment Canada's "business as usual" projections, while the projections don't include an equivalent federal policy approach for the oil sands.)

Overall, Canada's emissions are projected to increase by 54 million tonnes between 2005 and 2020 (Table 3, page 22). Emissions from the oil sands (including emissions from upgrading) are projected to grow by 62 million tonnes over the same period (Table 5, page 25). Because the ups and downs in emissions in other sectors largely cancel each other out, the bottom line is that virtually the entire projected increase in Canada's emissions between 2005 and 2020 will come from the oil sands.

Figure 1, below, shows what this looks like; the oil sands are the red line.

Figure 1: Projected emissions by economic sub-sector

From 2005 to 2020, the oil sands are projected to be responsible for 388 per cent of the increase in industrial emissions. (In other words, from 2005 to 2020 the oil sands are projected to grow nearly four times more than Canada's industrial emissions as a whole.)

Clearly, the oil sands sector is a real outlier.

If that projected oil sands growth does take place, it's going to make hitting Canada's 2020 emissions target very, very difficult. Worse, we're starting from a position of weakness even before that extra oil sands growth takes place: all of the current announced federal and provincial climate policies cover just one quarter of the gap between our projected 2020 emissions and our 2020 target. Environment Canada's chart showing the gap between our policies and our target is shown below as Figure 2 (in Canada's Emissions Trends, it's Figure ES3, page 12).

Figure 2: Scenarios of Canadian emissions to 2020

If we do miss our target in 2020, emission growth in the oil sands will probably be a big part of the reason.

But the oil sands' influence doesn't seem to end with their direct impact on Canada's emission profile. Over the years I've worked on climate policy, I've become more and more concerned about the disproportionate weight that this small but mighty slice of Canada's emissions seems to be exerting on our government's overall approach to global warming.

Read the rest of this post at the website of the Pembina Institute.

This post is the work of an Open Climate Network partner. The World Resources Institute is not responsible for the content or opinions expressed by the author.

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