Blame Canada!

George Monbiot skewers Canada’s role in climate change, from the tar sands to the international negotiations. Some highlights (notes in original):

… Until now I believed that the nation which has done most to sabotage a new climate change agreement was the United States. I was wrong. The real villain is Canada. Unless we can stop it, the harm done by Canada in December 2009 will outweigh a century of good works.

In 2006 the new Canadian government announced that it was abandoning its targets to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol. No other country that had ratified the treaty has done this. Canada was meant to have cut emissions by 6% between 1990 and 2012. Instead they have already risen by 26%(1).

It’s now clear that Canada will refuse to be sanctioned for abandoning its legal obligations. The Kyoto Protocol can be enforced only through goodwill: countries must agree to accept punitive future obligations if they miss their current targets. But the future cut Canada has volunteered is smaller than that of any other rich nation(2). Never mind special measures; it won’t accept even an equal share. The Canadian government is testing the international process to destruction and finding that it breaks all too easily. By demonstrating that climate sanctions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, it threatens to render any treaty struck at Copenhagen void.

After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations from striking a successor agreement. … In Copenhagen next week, this country will do everything in its power to wreck the talks. The rest of the world must do everything in its power to stop it. But such is the fragile nature of climate agreements that one rich nation – especially a member of the G8, the Commonwealth and the Kyoto group of industrialised countries – could scupper the treaty. Canada now threatens the well-being of the world.

Why? … The tar sands, most of which occur in Alberta, are being extracted by the biggest opencast mining operation on earth. An area the size of England, of pristine forests and marshes, will be dug up, unless the Canadians can stop this madness. Already it looks like a scene from the end of the world: the strip-miners are creating a churned black hell on an unimaginable scale.

To extract oil from this mess, it needs to be heated and washed. Three barrels of water are used to process one barrel of oil(9). The contaminated water is held in vast tailing ponds, some of which are so toxic that the tar companies employ people to scoop dead birds off the surface(10). Most are unlined. They leak organic poisons, arsenic and mercury into the rivers. The First Nations people living downstream have developed a range of exotic cancers and auto-immune diseases(11).

Refining tar sands requires two to three times as much energy as refining crude oil. The companies exploiting them burn enough natural gas to heat six million homes(12). Alberta’s tar sands operation is the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions(13). By 2020, if the current growth continues, it will produce more greenhouse gases than Ireland or Denmark(14). Already, thanks in part to the tar mining, Canadians have almost the highest per capita emissions on earth, and the stripping of Alberta has scarcely begun.

Canada hasn’t acted alone. The biggest leaseholder in the tar sands is Shell(15), a company that has spent millions persuading the public that it respects the environment. The other great greenwasher, BP, initially decided to stay out of tar. Now it has invested in plants built to process it(16). The British bank RBS, 70% of which belongs to you and me (the government’s share will soon rise to 84%), has lent or underwritten £8bn for exploiting the tar sands(17).

The purpose of Canada’s assault on the international talks is to protect this industry. This is not a poor nation. It does not depend for its economic survival on exploiting this resource. But the tar barons of Alberta have been able to hold the whole country to ransom. They have captured Canada’s politics and are turning this lovely country into a cruel and thuggish place.


  • I do think one thing we will learn from Copenhagen, is why Mr. Harper did not want to be there. He is going to get pasted for his inaction. But not going would have been political suicide.

    There is a part that George touches on but maybe not enought. THere is a growing division between those countries that will suffer more than others with the continuing onset of climate change. As one spokeperson said for an island nation, we are talking about the death of our people and destruction of cities, where others are classifying the risks in terms of lost economic output.

    That divisiveness will hopefully push the inactive such as Harper into a corner that comprehensive action will be the only option.

    It is getting to the point that protecting lobby groups such as the western oil industry will become political suicide. Amazing that the day after Harper announced he was going, the headlineas in many papers were quoting Stelmach how we all have to cool our climate change expectations. Amazing how easy it is in this country to get you ideas over the airwaves if you are speaking for somebody with \ big wallet.

    I got to get myself one of those big fat wallets, maybe woolworth’s carries them.

  • It’s very frustrating to watch the Conservatives use the first-past-the-post voting system to adopt policies that a majority of Canadians oppose. Today they’re doing it on global warming and Afghanistan. Under Mulroney 20 odd years ago they did it on the US-Canada free trade agreement.

    As many of us noted at the time the “free trade“ deal was really about energy and investment as trade was already mostly tariff-free. So now, driven by high oil prices, we have huge largely unregulated investments to over-develop the tar sands to supply the US with oil.

  • You can’t really blame first-past-the-post this time. The left leaning parties have the majority, like they probably would under proportional representation and could stop them if they work together.

  • Yes you’re right. In 1988 it was first-past-the-post but today if the three parties combined they could turf out the Conservatives. I don’t think I’d qualify the Liberals as left leaning but at least under Dion they had a decent policy on global warming and perhaps a few other things. It’s too bad the coalition attempt didn’t work last year.

    Nonetheless, I do think proportional representation would make it easier to get rid of the Conservative government (or not be stuck with one in the first place) as the number of seats held by Harper would be down to about 115 versus 190+ for the other parties. I find it hard to believe such a lopsided count would lead to a stable Conservative government for long, if at all.

    In any case it is galling to wind up with what is probably the most backward government in the developed world, one that was elected with only 37% of the popular vote.

  • I must admit this weeks attempt by those that deny climate change was about as helpful as shooting oneself in the head.

    Sit down for a day and look into the science behind climate change and you will realize that this is not about temperature changes in the short run, it is about the amount of carbon that we have shocked the system with and the longer term consequences.

    You have to have a bit of a feel for the carbon sinks, the efficiency of how they work and their robustness when conditions change.

    The ocean sure enough is the largest sink in the world by far for carbon, however, it is only the top layer of about 100 m that can absorb any amount of carbon, and it is not a whole lot. It can take upwards of a 1000 years for the deep water carbon sink to effectively mix enough to absorb newly released carbon.

    The scarey stage we are entering right now is, how will the ocean carbon sink react to a slowly warming planet.

    Also to what degree will the other major sink, the forests, be affected by this gradual warming.

    One theory out there that scares the hell out of me, is one that suggests these sinks become clogged because of the saturation in carbon is reached. For example, just because we have more carbon, does not mean we grown more fibre in the forest. Also in the case of the oceans, just because we have more carbon in the air does not mean we will have more scrubbing of carbon out of the atmosphere. It is suggested that the important mixing of the ocean currents could actually be negatively affected by warming and the increased acidification by these carbon shocks that we have released.

    It is so much more than a couple of stretched readings on annual temperature data on some hard drive in the UK.

    Those that deny want to simply throw out the baby with the bath water here.

    For all those environmental economists out there, I do suggest you get into the science of it a bit. At least the stocks and flows- the chemistry can be challenging, but in the end, again it is merely, stocks and flows, mixing and such.

    In fact the science community is at a point right now that given the debate about the missing sink, to me shows that even they have a long way to go in figuring how far we are entering into this space of environmental change and where the new equalibriums might be and how long it will take.

    The bottomline, you don;t shock the system with the amount of carbon we have on an annual basis continously for the past 300 years and think that we can just merrily continue doing so.

    The science is there to show you we can’t, it is up to us as progressives to show those who maintain the interested of the status quo that indeed there is a pathway forward, and yes it is not going to come cheaply, but relative to where we are heading, it is definitely at least an affordable route to avoid the mess that is coming.

  • Every Canadian, knows the government is an ass. If there is a right way to accomplish ridding of those gasses, our government will take the wrong way, as they have done everything else. The oceans are dying, because of pollution, man has even began to pollute space. Our earth, we use to feed ourselves, is dying. Canada would rather be dead, than to build wind turbines. Car factories closed down, would be a place to build those turbines. Canada, has huge gas fields and oil, so, I doubt if any-one, can change the mind of, the Canadian government, to go green. When that big shelf of ice falls in Greenland,there will be dire complications. The beautiful north, will be no more, pollution, is rearing it’s ugly head, right now.

  • Recall my comment above on some scary stuff happening with the ocean and its role as a carbon sink. Well here is a good article today focusing pretty much on what I was mentioning.

    So when we start a discussion on carbon sinks, and the economics of sustainability, we must realize not all is its seems.

    A sink just is not just a sink, a flow and and stock are dynamic in ways that economics may just not be used of in its approach to the environment.

    As we find our way forward in this interdisciplinary field, it is handy to keep the dimensions of change in the big, closely at hand.

    What are we to do with all that Carbon?

    I would say this right now- grow as many trees, as possible- but try and keep away from the monoculture farms- they just do not have the robustness. The may seem efficient but given the chaos of our lack of information within the longer term effects of monoculture, then diversity has got to be the way forward in afforestation and reforestation.

    We need to plant more trees like there is no tomorrow!

    That is unless we can some how invent giant egg beaters to churn up the ocean a whole lot faster!

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