I’ve been a little baffled by the tar sands’ villainization in the climate literature for some time. While a few photographs can clearly show that the tar sands have dire impacts on the local environment (as a recent National Geographic special showed), I haven’t really understood why the tar sands have been singled out for so much venom in the climate literature. About two years ago, I first saw the stats: if you measure all emissions from extraction to the tailpipe (a “well-to-wheel” basis), the tar sands are between 15–40% worse than conventional oil. Why, then, is tar sands oil so much worse than—say—a vehicle with 15–40% poorer fuel efficiency? Here in Canada, the tar sands represent a lot of potential wealth and jobs; why should our oil get singled out relative to Saudi crude?
My reading recently took me past a figure that illuminated the problem for me in many ways. The figure below is adapted slightly from Farrell and Brandt, “Risks of the Oil Transition,” Environmental Research Letters 1(1), 2006, although I’m sure it can be found in many places in the literature.
The horizontal axis here represents the number of barrels of oil possible with each source, the vertical axis represents the greenhouse gas emissions per barrel, and the area of each bar is therefore the total emissions if all possible fuel of that type is extracted and used.
The black bar to the left of the axis represents the emissions from all oil burned to date. Everything to the right of the axis represents the potential emissions from conventional and unconventional oil, in order of price per barrel. The oil used to date is dwarfed but what remains in the ground and could be emitted in the future.
Coming back to the tar sands, a few points can be drawn from the figure: Continue reading Emissions and the Tar Sands→
I was startled to see the figure on the right in a recent Economist article. Canada is not only going in the wrong direction when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s actually doing worse than the rest of the G8, including the United States.
One interesting aspect of Kyoto is that it isn’t indexed to population growth, so countries that accept large number of immigrants (e.g., Canada) are penalised relative to nations that have limited population growth (e.g., western Europe). Ultimately, I suspect this makes sense: the immigrants that Canada accepts are largely from low-carbon nations, and are likely to adopt high-carbon lifestyles upon arrival, so migration is not simply a redistribution of existing emissions. Nevertheless, it does leave Canada at a further disadvantage. Mind you, as the Economist figure shows, the European nations are striving for higher targets than Kyoto anyways – their internal burden-sharing agreement allocates more reduction burden onto high-emission nations.
Looking a little closer (with a little help from an Environment Canada report), we can see the breakdown of the growth in the figure above. I’d like to see this in a little more detail, breaking down energy and transportation a little more finely. Canada’s GHG emissions grew by 26.5% from 1990-2004 (from 599MT to 758MT), and I’ve expressed the 1990-2004 GHG increases in each category as a percentage of 599MT, to show how each sector contributes to the 26.5% growth.
This puts in context some of the recent politicking about GHGs. Yes, the fossil fuel industries are a large part of the problem: the oilsands are a major source of carbon emissions, and the growth of exports in Alberta is clearly a big part of our emissions (8.5/26.5 = 32% of growth in GHGs). But, road/off-road transportation (29% of growth) and electricity (22% of growth) have also contributed significantly to our recent increases in emissions.
Breaking down the 7.8% from road and off-road transportation further:
3.6%: heavy-duty trucks (gasoline & diesel)
2.9%: cars and light-duty trucks (gasoline, diesel, propane and natural gas)
Heavy-duty trucks are a significant part of road transportation growth. Keep in mind that this is part of other changes in the freight industry, including a 0.3% increase in marine emissions and a 0.2% decrease in rail emissions, giving a 3.7% net increase for freight. The switch from cars to SUVs, the ongoing decline of transit usage, and the ongoing rise in kilometres travelled per person contributed to the 2.9% contribution by cars and light-duty trucks. Off-road usage is a bit weird, and I haven’t looked into how they measure this distinction.
Now I have a sense of how my new field fits into the bigger GHG picture: passenger transport makes up over 10% of Canada’s growth in GHG emissions. Stopping that growth is clearly an important start towards stabilizing national (and global) emissions, but that’s just the beginning – the latest negotiations are talking about a 50% reduction in global emissions relative to 1990. If developing countries are allowed to increase their per capita emissions, Canada would need something closer to a 75-80% reduction in emissions for a net 50% reduction globally.
Phew. I’m sure that’ll be a cinch.