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Coal is worst, but oilsands are still harmful: climate scientists

By Heather Yundt (Postmedia News) - February 21, 2012

Coal — not oilsands — is the largest threat to the world’s climate.

Still, that’s no reason to endorse the Keystone XL or Northern Gateway pipelines, say two Canadian climate experts in a provocative study released on the weekend.

Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver, researchers at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, estimated the potential for global warming of oil, gas, and coal based on their carbon emissions.

If all of the Alberta oilsands were burned, the average global temperature would rise by 0.36 C based on the carbon emissions alone, Swart and Weaver suggest. That is a greater impact than the burning of every drop of conventional oil, which would increase global temperatures by 0.34 per cent.

In another report, Swart and Weaver suggest that if all the emissions that result from the process of oilsands extraction are considered, exploiting all of Alberta’s oilsands — about seven times the size of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves — would raise the average global temperature by 0.42 C.

But Swart and Weaver found the fossil fuel with the greatest potential to drive global warming is coal. If the global supply of coal were burned, the global temperature could rise by an estimated 15 C.

The global temperature has increased 0.76 C in the past 100 years.

Though carbon emissions from oilsands are less than from coal, Swart says the numbers must be considered in a global context.

“If only Canada had this resource and it was utilized then it’s true that the impact on the global climate would be fairly small,” he said Monday. “However, we have to realize that many other countries also have large fossil fuel resources and if these countries follow Canada’s example in exploiting their fossil fuel resources to a large extent then the amount of warming that you’ll have will be very large.”

Swart said North Americans emit more than their share of carbon based on the 2009 Copenhagen agreement to limit global warming to 2 C above pre-industrial times.

By only using the available oilsands, Swart said, North Americans would use up about 75 per cent of the global emissions allowable in order to stay within that 2 C increase in global temperatures.

Canada, he said, should be working toward switching over to low-carbon alternatives in order to set an example for other countries — not increasing oilsands exploitation.

“It’s chance that Canada happens to have oilsands but Colombia or South Africa or China have large coal resources,” he said. “The equivalent of Canada digging into the oilsands is China, Colombia and South Africa going full scale on their coal.

“Making long-term commitments to fossil fuel usage and committing ourselves to that through large infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline is inconsistent with that goal of transitioning to a low-carbon society.”

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada weighed in on the issue, emphasizing the importance of shifting away from fossil fuels altogether.

“While coal is a huge global emissions problem, the dirty tarsands remain Canada’s largest climate challenge,” Hudema said in a statement Monday. “Tarsands development is the fastest rising source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The bottom line message for the Harper government is that, as Professor Weaver says, we need to transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. That includes coal, unconventional natural gas and, of course, tarsands.”

Swart and Weaver’s commentary, published in the scientific journal Nature, comes as the European Union is getting ready to vote on a draft law that would penalize the Canadian oilsands and label the resource one of the dirtiest crude sources on Earth.

In an interview with Postmedia News, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver called the draft law a “discriminatory approach that would single out the oilsands” without scientific evidence.

“Having a measure that provides for more onerous treatment for the oilsands relative to other crudes which haven’t been analyzed is discriminatory and it potentially violates the European Union’s international trade obligations,” Oliver said at a news conference in October.

The EU will vote on the draft law Thursday.