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Climate Change. World Energy Outlook

Tar sands: The story behind the headlines

Alan Miller's picture

The complexity of climate change issue is a challenge for most mainstream media, which increasingly seek the shortest possible sound bite to interest an audience with a very limited attention span. Yet a recent example illustrates the importance of looking past the headlines to understand the importance and true meaning of scientific announcements.  The article featured the optimistic headline: “New study finds oil sands fuels would cause imperceptible temperature rise.” 

This declaration understandably attracted considerable attention from climate policy-watchers because Canadian oil sands (also commonly referred to as “tar sands” reflecting the heavy, molasses like quality of the substance) are the resource proposed for transmission via the controversial Keystone XL pipeline recently denied a permit by the Obama Administration. (Oil sands deposits have also been found in Russia, Venezuela and Kazakhstan, but a majority of identified reserves and virtually all commercial production are in Canada.)  

Some advocates for developing the oil sands see their use as essentially a national energy security issue, maintaining the pipeline is an important step forward toward fulfilling the long cherished dream of US energy independence, not to mention the potential to reduce or at least stabilize gasoline prices: ``Is US Energy Independence Finally Within Reach”, National Public Radio, March 7, 2012.

To be sure, the promise of lower gasoline prices and energy security are strong considerations. But an ongoing debate continues as to whether or not this economically attractive resource can be extracted, refined, and distributed without unacceptable environmental harm. This is why an otherwise academic analysis by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver at the University of Victoria in British Columbia proved newsworthy. They calculated the global temperature rise that would result from the carbon dioxide released by burning currently proven reserves of Canadian oil sands: Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver, “The Alberta oil sand and climate,” Nature Climate Change, Feb. 19, 2012.

Can the world avert locking itself into an unsustainable future?

Vijay Iyer's picture

“The world is locking itself into an unsustainable future.” That’s the headline on the press release for this year’s World Energy Outlook(WEO). This conclusion, coming from the sober, serious International Energy Agency (IEA), sure grabbed attention at a panel discussion I moderated here in Durban Monday.

In presenting the Outlook, Laura Cozzi, IEA’s Senior Economist, laid out the WEO’s three scenarios for the future. Two of them, the ‘Current Policies’ scenario — that is, business-as-usual — and the ‘New Policies’ one, that is, governments cautiously implement commitments already made — do not get us where we need to be by 2035. Only one of them does that, the third, so-called ‘450 Scenario’, which sets out an energy path consistent with a 50%-chance of holding global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. Past and current choices have the world ‘locked into’ a high emissions path. Laura showed that the 450 scenario takes the world to a situation of ‘no carbon space left’ for new energy generation by 2017. At that point, either only zero-carbon new energy generation can go forward or, if not, for every power plant commissioned, an equivalent dirtier one will have to be shut down. 

It provoked a lively discussion. Dr. Leena Srivastava, Executive Director of India’s Energy and Resources Institute, pointed out that the ‘lock-in’ is caused not just by current patterns of production, but also by lifestyles and patterns of consumption. This resonated with the other two panelists: Dr. Subho Banerjee, Deputy Secretary of the Australian government’s Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Department, as well as Dr. Lu Qiang, of Beijing’s Energy Research Institute, a think-tank under China's National Development and Reform Commission. They reminded the audience that policy must influence patterns of consumption along with energy generation.