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Another Climate Threshold Ignored

Full steam ahead for Canada's tar sands as CO2 levels rise

by Crystel Hajjar

Flooding in Calgary, Alberta, displaced over ten thousand people from their homes. Experts expect extreme weather events to increase in frequency and magnitude. Image by Sean Esopenko, CC2.0.
Flooding in Calgary, Alberta, displaced over ten thousand people from their homes. Experts expect extreme weather events to increase in frequency and magnitude. Image by Sean Esopenko, CC2.0.

OTTAWA—For climate scientists, May 10, 2013, marked a historic moment: atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) reached a concentration of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history. But the surpassing of a climate change threshold made barely a ripple in mainstream media, raising questions among climate justice activists about the efficacy of current strategies for capping greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite multiple scientific warnings and concerns from affected nations, environmental and grassroots groups, Conferences of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have made little progress. Organizations like the World Resources Institute, an international organization that collects environmental and socio-economic data, report that greenhouse gases have been rising steadily since 1995 when negotiations started.

“I think what’s happened is [governments] didn’t really expect that the climate will change this quickly,” said Paul Beckwith, a climate researcher and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in abrupt climate change. “The computer models…could be underestimating the feedbacks in the system.”

Some suggest that political motives lurk behind the failures of UN climate processes. Scientists, politicians and civil society, both from Canada and internationally, have criticized Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper specifically, for its disruptive role at the UN climate negotiations—especially after it became the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, a voluntary emissions reduction program, in December 2011.

Climate justice groups are questioning the usefulness of the 400 ppm announcement as a tool for further mobilization, especially because previous warnings about CO2 concentration have not prompted governments to reduce emissions. 

“I do question how much talking about…abstract numbers translates into action,” said Cameron Fenton, the national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, a climate advocacy organization, in a phone interview with The Dominion. “We’ve been talking about 350, 400 ppm for years now and it resulted in a huge mobilizing force. That being said, it is a pretty monumental line to cross; that it was crossed with so little concern, with so little attention, is disconcerting.”

Oceanographer and carbon cycle researcher Tim Lueker agrees. “The 400 ppm threshold is a sobering milestone, and should serve as a wake-up call for all of us…before it's too late for our children and grandchildren," he said, in a press statement released by Scripps CO2 Group.

Scripps CO2 Group is the organization responsible for measuring the concentration of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists use samples from air and seawater to collect data for the Keeling Curve, a graph used to describe this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The samples have been collected since 1958, primarily in Mauna Loa in Hawaii, with additional monitoring stations in both poles and across the Pacific Ocean. 

Research done on ice core samples measuring CO2 levels trapped in the permafrost, mainly in Antarctica and Greenland, provides scientists with similarly accurate records on CO2 levels for the past 800,000 years. To measure CO2 levels between 800,000 and up to 4.5 million years ago, scientists measure carbon isotopes in ancient ocean sediments. Scientists use this data to estimate the impacts that these recorded levels of CO2 will have on the Earth. 

These records show that the last time the CO2 concentration reached the 400 ppm level was three to five million years ago. Back then, the global average temperature was three to four degrees higher, with up to 10 degrees difference in the poles. The weather patterns were significantly different and sea levels were anywhere between 5 and 40 metres higher than current levels. 

“Now [that] we look at the Earth’s history more carefully and have better data on how the Earth responded to changes in global temperature and changes in the atmospheric composition in the past…we see we have already passed into the dangerous range,” said James Hansen, a climate researcher who retired from NASA to take political action on climate change. He was recently arrested at a climate-related protest outside the White House in Washington, DC.  

Beckwith notes that passing the 400 ppm mark could have severe and irreversible long-term consequences on sea ice thickness in the Arctic, with implications for world weather patterns and, in turn, agriculture and food supply.

The melting of ancient sea ice releases greenhouse gases—specifically, methane—that have been trapped in the ice for millions of years. An increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases intensifies warming trends, which in turn accelerates the polar melt rate in a cycle known as positive feedback.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic; it’s not like Las Vegas,” said Beckwith. “It is not just polar bears and the environment that we need to talk about [but also] how it affects humans.”

Beckwith expects to see the total disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean as early as the end of this summer or in 2014. 

“Within a decade or so, [the Arctic sea ice] will be gone year-round; we’ll lose our winter in the Northern Hemisphere,” he told The Dominion

Because of the positive feedback phenomenon, if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, CO2 levels are expected to rise at ever-accelerating rates.

 “At this pace we'll hit 450 ppm within a few decades,” said Scripps geochemist Ralph Keeling in a press statement.

According to the World Resources Institute, the energy sector is the sector primarily responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. The oil and gas industry alone accounts for 6.4 per cent of the total global emissions. In Canada, the oil and gas industry is responsible for 23 per cent of the total emissions, according to Environment Canada’s data from 2011

Research conducted by the National Energy Technology Laboratory shows that the process of extracting oil out of the tar sands produces on average 3.2 to 4.5 times more CO2 per barrel than other conventional crude oil. For this reason, it is currently the primary barrier preventing Canada from reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. 

What's more, according to the Pembina Institute, a research think tank focused on environmental advocacy, the Canadian government projects approved an expansion of the tar sands development from 1.9 million barrels a day to over five million barrels by 2030, which will increase rather than reduce Canada's emissions.

“Carbon emissions from the oil sands, from production and processing, have doubled between 2000 and 2010 and are set to double again by 2020,” said Sydney Grieve of Climate Action Network Canada in an interview from Ottawa.

The Harper government is financially supporting the oil and gas industry by about $1.4 billion in tax breaks per year, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Furthermore, on multiple occasions the government lobbied some European Union countries to prevent the EU from labelling the tar sands as an unconventional and more polluting fuel, as they were discussing the EU fuel directive. 

On the legislative level, the Harper government is facilitating the process for the oil and gas industry. Most notable was the 2012 omnibus budget bill, a proposal covering a range of unrelated topics. It was passed in June 2012, eliminating and overriding previous environmental legislation ranging from impact assessments to water and air quality. Canada’s Natural Resource Minister, Joe Oliver, promoted the benefits of these changes for investors and developers interested in exploiting Canada’s resources. 

Grieve suggests Canada's investment in the tar sands is not only environmentally but also economically misguided. “The environmental impacts of supporting the oil industry are obvious, but economically this isn’t in our best interest, we have such an oversupply of our oil and the demand isn’t even there,” said Grieve. “Internationally, our government is on a lobbying rampage trying to promote the tar sands.” 

Crystel Hajjar is a journalist and organizer in the climate justice movement. She writes on social, political and environmental issues.

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