Crunch Time on Climate, or why Canadians should strongly support Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax


Crunch time is now.  The IPCC special report, Global Warming of 1.5oC was an early October shot across our collective bows.  It reported the substantial difference in extent of risk in a 2oC world, compared to a 1.5oC world.  The US report in late November was a follow-up to make sure we noticed.  That report: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States, is the second volume in the two-volume Fourth National Climate Assessment mandated by Congress.  It was produced by the 13 federal departments and agencies responsible for research and supporting the national response to climate change.  Just to rub some salt in, UNEP released its 2018 Emissions Gap Report on November 27th, revealing the not unexpected news that the emissions reductions committed to by countries are woefully insufficient to achieve the Paris goals for 2030 (meeting those goals is why nations have made their commitments).  Now, with COP24 under way in Katowice, Poland, there is a flurry of news mostly concerning how rapidly the climate is changing and how far beneath a satisfactory level the world’s responses fall.  This week’s issue of Nature, out today, contains several articles and an editorial on this topic.

A wonderfully hypnotic view from high above of the The Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant in Andalusia, Spain.  Image © Markel Redondo/Panos.

Frankly, I don’t know how much more clearly the scope of our predicament could be portrayed.  The Emissions Gap Report begins its Summary for Policy Makers with a paragraph in red:

Current commitments expressed in the NDCs are inadequate to bridge the emissions gap in 2030. Technically, it is still possible to bridge the gap to ensure global warming stays well below 2°C and 1.5°C, but if NDC ambitions are not increased before 2030, exceeding the 1.5°C goal can no longer be avoided. Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required by all nations. The assessment of actions by the G20 countries indicates that this is yet to happen; in fact, global CO2 emissions increased in 2017 after three years of stagnation.

There’s no scholarly wiggle words here, no hesitant tiptoeing to a conclusion.  The ‘nationally determined commitments’ or NDCs, those promises voluntarily given, perhaps complete with a Boy Scout’s salute, by each participating country, are INADEQUATE.  They won’t do.  They won’t magically let us reach the Paris goal.  Of course, we’ve known that fact ever since the NDCs began to come in back in 2015.  (We’ve also known that most countries have not managed to put in place policies that will achieve their NDCs, so the situation is even worse than the inadequacy of the NDCs implies.)

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to increase.  Concentration over Mauna Loa averaged 408 ppm last month and reached 411 ppm earlier in the year during the late spring peak, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

The cause of this is pretty clear: in 2018 global anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases reached 49 gigatonnes CO2e not including releases due to changes in land use, a 1.1% increase over 2016, and emissions are projected to increase a further 2.7%.  There had been a plateau in emissions 2015 to 2017 leading many to believe the corner had been turned, but that was clearly misplaced optimism.  The reason for the increases?  A growing world economy with energy demand increasing fast enough to suck up all new green energy production and still require an increase in fossil fuel use.  While use of coal has slowed, use of gas and oil continue to grow rapidly.

Trends in GHG emissions from burning of fossil fuel, 1965 to 2018.  There is definitely no sign of a slowdown!  In addition to emissions due to fossil fuel use, there are emissions due to manufacture of cement and due to changes in land use.  In 2017, total GHG emissions were 53.5 gigatonnes CO2e, and total emissions excluding those from land use change were 49.2 gigatonnes CO2eImage © Nature.


Trends in energy use from 1965 to 2018, by fuel type.  Despite the enormous growth (proportionally) in solar energy, it still remains a minor part of the global energy mix.
© Nature.


The climate is continuing to warm as a consequence of the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the IPCC special report in October demonstrated the very different consequences of acting to limit warming to 1.5oC or allowing it to reach 2.0oC – a half a degree really does matter in this new Anthropocene world.

The IPCC report shows that global monthly mean surface temperature has now exceeded the range of temperatures typical of the pre-industrial era.  We are effectively in territory totally new to humans, although the world has been here before.  Furthermore, in an article published in this week’s Nature,

An unfortunately low-res, prepublication version of Figure 1.2 of IPCC’s 1.5o report showing the trend in globally averaged mean monthly surface temperature since the start of the industrial revolution.  Temperature (orange line) now exceeds the range of temperatures during the Holocene.  The observed trajectory is towards the high side of the range of projections from global climate models (green band).  Image © IPCC.

Yangyang Xu of Texas A&M, and V. Ramanathan and DG Victor, both of UC San Diego, argue that the IPCC report did not pay sufficient attention to the fact that rising emissions are combining with two other factors to increase the rate at which warming is taking place.  They point to improving air quality in many cities mostly due to use of more efficient cars, trucks, buses and trains, which is allowing more sunlight to reach the surface, thereby enhancing warming.  In addition, the planet is now entering the natural warming phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, expected to last a couple of decades. Xu and colleagues are saying, “Hey, wait a minute, as bad as IPCC made things seem, the overall warming rate is going to be faster, and increasing in rate over the near term”.  They suggest we may reach the 1.5oC target as much as a decade earlier than IPCC suggested!

And just to repeat, our mitigation efforts are nowhere near being sufficient to plateau at 2.0oC let alone 1.5oC.

According to Xu et al, the combined effect of continuing GHG emissions, improving air quality, and the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation now entering its warming phase means that warming is going to proceed even faster than IPCC was projecting in its October special report on keeping warming to 1.5oC.  Image © Nature.

So, what do we do now, other than assume the fetal position and hope for the best?  Nature managed to include some good news this week.  In an article titled, Emissions are still rising, Christiana Figueres and colleagues report that while decarbonization by 2050 may appear impossible now, key technologies are on track.  Costs of generating solar energy have fallen 80% in the last decade, and solar electricity is being produced in Morocco, Mexico, Chile and Egypt for 3 cents or less per kwh, cheaper than using natural gas.  Today, more than 50% of new electricity generating capacity is renewable, with wind and solar doubling every four years.

Coal is being priced out and coal-fired power plants are being retired in the USA despite the supporting bluster from a certain large, not very nice politician there.  In October, the World Bank cancelled planned funding for a 500 watt coal project in Kosovo – the last coal project in its pipeline.  There were lower cost ways to provide the needed energy.

Giant strides are being made in developing new, more efficient batteries, and electric vehicles are starting to surge.  Norway, France, the UK, the Netherlands and India have all set deadlines for stopping the sale of non-electric cars, with Norway’s deadline in 2025.  The recent North American plant closures announced by General Motors are part of a massive restructuring to switch R&D and production towards electric vehicles.  And, while OPEC projected 46 million by 2040, it now projects 253 million by that date.

Of course, even Figueres could not be totally optimistic.  Their article noted the growing trend away from support for international cooperation in reducing emissions, specifically mentioning the brilliant White House decision to have the USA withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the pro-harvesting attitude towards the Amazon rainforest by the newly elected populist President of Brazil, and the prevalence of climate sceptics among Australia’s political leaders, who worship at the coal shrine every chance they get.  Still, refusing to end on a down note, Figueres and colleagues lauded the widespread support for climate action at regional and local levels even within countries that are intransigently opposed to moving on climate at the national level.

Reading Figueres’s article did cheer me up.  It goes on to enumerate actions by private industry, and strong support by some countries for the Paris Agreement.  Its worth a read if only for the uplift it provides (and it is open access, even if in Nature).  Still, for me the uplift did not last: I remain pessimistically unconvinced.

You see, here in Canada, the Trudeau government has got itself all tangled up in unbuilt pipelines, and the most ridiculous wailing coming out of Alberta because they are having difficulty selling their oil at a decent price.  These days, every time there is a price dip, a chorus of voices rises like angels on high, singing out that its all because we don’t have enough pipelines, and the downturn in the tar sands is going to lead the Canadian economy to abject ruin.  Fingers are pointed at Justin Trudeau, who simply has not done enough for Alberta, the most misunderstood, and poorly treated Province in all of Canada.

I’ve talked before about the mythical lack of pipeline capacity, and have yet to see anyone provide evidence to the contrary.  There WOULD BE a shortage of capacity if the production of bitumen had grown as rapidly, and to such high levels, as was being predicted by all the oil-savvy experts back in the Harper years.  Production is going to increase three-fold!  Have to get those pipelines built (all of them)!  Cannot delay!

Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley fixing Canada’s claimed pipeline shortage.
© David Parkins/Globe & Mail

But growth has been a lot more anemic (thank god, given impacts on the climate), and present-day problems have been caused by four things that have come together as the proverbial perfect storm.  First there is a glut of oil on the global market partly because lifting of sanctions has allowed Iran back into markets, partly because of growing fracking output in the US, and partly because demand has not kept up with supply.  Second, Suncor has successfully brought new production online ahead of schedule, contributing to a glut of product within Alberta.  Third, a number of refineries in the US Midwest that process Canadian heavy crude (read ‘tar sands gluggy stuff’) have shut down for maintenance at the same time.  And fourth, Canada has pipelines that only go to US refineries, so any slowdown in that pathway hits Alberta which has no alternative destinations for its oil.  This October, even if we had a twinned Trans-Mountain, and a new Keystone XL in operation, Alberta would have faced discounted prices.  Nevertheless, despite these facts, numerous authoritative sources and politicians (not necessarily the same thing) were criticizing anyone who had the temerity to wonder about the climate, or the environment, or who argued against building every more pipelines from Alberta.  The normally sane and sage Globe & Mail even wrote an editorial to this effect!

Amazingly, fantastically, and revealing just how inflated the rhetoric about a shortage of pipeline capacity had become, as soon as Alberta’s Premier Notley promised to buy some rail cars, and create some legislation to force a slowdown in production, the low prices disappeared.  Whereas prices for Western Canadian Select (the tar sands product) had bottomed out in October at $50 below the price for West Texas Intermediate, leading to all the wailing from Alberta, the prices rebounded today to a $15 discount on West Texas Intermediate – slightly better than the long-term average of $17, due to the greater difficulty with handling and processing this stuff.  Look at the graph and explain to me a) how the claimed chronic shortage of pipeline capacity could produce such a yo-yoing price differential, and b) how some calming words and a promise from Premier Notley for some changes in production sometime in 2019 could have produced the recovery over the last few days.  Main message here?  Take with a grain of salt any crisis talk out of Alberta.

This delightfully zig-zaggy trend line shows the difference in price between tar sands ‘oil’ and conventional oil (West Texas Intermediate).  A shortage of pipelines that is claimed to have existed for years could never be responsible for these gyrations.  On the other hand, that gifted politician, Premier Notley has been able to save the day at the end of November by a promise of government help sometime next year.  Wow, does she have charisma or what!
© Globe & Mail.

Prime Minister Trudeau, who has already committed Canadians to buying a pipeline we did not ask for, is now being asked by Rachel Notley to help her buy the rail cars she has promised.  Hell, why not go into the railroad business together to please Alberta?  Trudeau has wisely kept his lip buttoned on rail cars, but I wait with bated breath while the meeting this weekend between the PM and all the Premiers – political promises are seldom cases of careful rational deliberation.

Still, it is undeniable that Justin Trudeau has found himself tangled up in pipelines more than he ever expected, and this has kept him from taking pressing action on climate change.  Canada is still saddled with the original NDC (nationally determined commitment) for the Paris agreement.  It had been cobbled together by Stephen Harper, a person noted for his complete disdain of climate change, and it was delivered to IPCC by the newly elected Trudeau team.  It has been widely condemned as one of the least adequate – make that most inadequate – NDCs offered by a developed country.  And Canada is hopelessly far behind on even achieving this modest little effort.  Meanwhile the sunny ways of the early Trudeau years have faded into a particularly nasty political battle in which conservative politicians (both in the federal opposition, and in power in provinces) are gleefully using spurious claims that the planned federal carbon tax is just a tax grab by the government.  Men (and they are all men) who should know better are feverishly stoking resentment from the public, who are believed, apparently, to be too stupid to actually understand a) that putting a price on carbon pollution is the most effective way of reducing it, and b) the proposed tax will generate revenues that are being passed back to the public.  No Net Increase in Taxes.

One of Canada’s less thoughtful provincial Premiers, who goes by the name @FordNation and has spent his first six months in office scrapping every piece of environmental legislation he can find.  Goose-stepping backwards into the past ain’t a bit like John Cleese’s ‘silly walk’.
© Now Magazine

There have been several opportunities to resuscitate the climate policies.  Each of the reports from IPCC or other bodies over the last few months has pointed to the urgent need for countries to do more than they are doing.  But on each occasion, I have watched and waited, and neither Justin Trudeau, nor his Minister of Environment and CLIMATE CHANGE, Catherine McKenna, has grabbed the ball and run with it.  It’s got so bad that @CathMcKenna has been tweeting about all the wonderful things Canada is going to do to solve the problem of plastic in the ocean.  I mean, who is going to be opposed to doing something to reduce plastic pollution.  Yes, we’ll all give up plastic straws, and live happily ever after as the world grows warmer and warmer.

On the other hand, I am not a politician, and maybe keeping one’s powder dry is a useful posture given that they never planned to bring in the tax until next year anyway…. Except, next year is also an election year, and the Conservatives are already beating the drum about why we must not pay taxes to curb greenhouse gases.

Its possible that there is more real support in Canada for curbing global warming than I believe is the case.  But I have watched in distress as the newly elected Ford government of Ontario (now there is a political leader to admire) has methodically wound down every progressive environmental measure put in place by its predecessors.  Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, barely in place, was scrapped the moment they assumed power (at some cost to the treasury, too).  Various other environmental advances made by the former government have also been rolled back.  And I have heard only silence.  Like its too bad, but it probably doesn’t really matter.  It DOES matter.

Elsewhere, I see the city of Paris on fire as people riot against a gasoline tax to curb carbon emissions.  It’s touching.  It makes for great theatre – all those yellow vests in the dark night, and it did get the tax cancelled for now.  But how does France move forward?

In Australia, the endless spewing of nonsense out of the Parliament House about the lack of need for Australia to do anything towards curbing greenhouse gases leaves me wondering.  They built that Parliament building half underground.  Perhaps they should just bury it fully, with the politicians inside, and plant trees on top of it.

A nation that has put up with exceptionally severe droughts, fires, cyclones in recent years should surely be aware that climate is changing in ways that make Australia a far more difficult place in which to live and prosper than it once was.  The nation that prides itself on its management of the Great Barrier Reef, and recognizes that reef as of iconic value, a major generator of tourism jobs and dollars, and a piece of Australia’s national heritage that absolutely defines that country, is being led by politicians who find it appropriate to throw $444 million at an NGO ill-equipped to use it effectively, and claim that by so doing they are protecting the Great Barrier Reef, following its severe bleaching two years in a row because of climate change.  Meanwhile the demand to dig up coal and export it to India continues unabated.  If all Australia’s coal was dug up and used, the world would be in exactly the same mess as if all Canada’s delightful tar sands were dug up and used.  We collectively cannot afford to do either of these things, and the sooner people realize that and stop trying, the better.  The world is not a larder full of stuff for us to use willy nilly.  No matter what any economist thinks.

Why not cut 9 million out of the 10.7 million acres previously set aside to protect this amazing bird?  More land for mining and drilling!  What a great, forward-thinking step to take by an Administration that has yet to find a single environmental issue it supports.  Is this what Americans voted for?  Image © Dan Cepeda/Associated Press.

And then there is the United States.  Led by a madman who clearly has never seen a natural environment he might consider protecting.  This morning’s paper had a wonderful picture of a sage grouse in courting pose.  This amazing creature has already had its numbers greatly reduced because we prefer to use prairie differently, and the photo was there because Mr. Trump has found yet another environmental reserve, set up to protect the grouse on their lekking ground, that needs to be trashed so that there is more land available to drill for fossil fuels.  Getting that pesky bird out of the way was one step.  Almost simultaneously, rules governing emissions from coal-fired power plants have been rolled back. Yes, there are large parts of the USA that are trying their best to make progress on climate change, but I think the world needs far more from the USA than a partial response, while the disease which is the current central government does all it can do to undo any progress from past years.

At present, despite rereading the Figueres article in Nature, and trying to become inspired again, I find myself looking into a very warm and chaotic future.  It won’t be the 1.5o or the 2.0o future that IPCC talks about.  IT’s going to be the 4o or the 6o or the 7o future that nobody who understands these things wants to contemplate.  A future in which we will lack the water needed for crops to feed our people, one in which our major cities will all be moderately or severely damaged by rising sea level.  A future with a sea level that continues to rise until all the ice in polar regions is gone, and virtually all our major cities are so many Atlantises.  A future that will make the scenes of refugees today the new normal across vast stretches of the planet.  And we will have caused it.  Through our carelessness, our greed, and our blind stupidity.

Or maybe, just maybe, we will find a way to at last begin to take due notice of what is the most profound set of changes unleashed on this planet since we began to learn how to farm.  I sure hope there is going to be some good news in 2019.  For now, my advice to everyone is to let your political leaders know you support taking strong action on climate change, you want to see results.  For Canadians, particularly, it is imperative that people who have been convinced that climate change is a real and present danger all communicate their concern to the federal politicians, as loudly as possible.  We want a carbon tax.  We want other actions to shift the Canadian economy away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  We want a progressive, well-thought-out, coordinated program that will address greenhouse gas emissions while also building the infrastructure and creating the new technology that will provide high-value jobs for the future.  Canada is lucky to be in a part of the world where climate change risks will be manageable.  We need to seize that luck to ensure a great future for our people.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Coal, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Crunch Time on Climate, or why Canadians should strongly support Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax

Why Canada will Waste Money on the Trans-Mountain Pipeline


As I stare at the blank page. Thinking how to begin, I sense I am about to pound my head against a rather solid wall yet again.  Logic does not always overcome politics, and to understand Canada’s love affair with what used to be called the Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline, we need to understand the politics.  Trans-Mountain is a small part of our wider love affair with pipelines built (or not) to ship tar sands product to market.  Trans-Mountain already exists and is being used to ship product to Burnaby BC for export (mostly or entirely to refineries on the US west coast).  It is the expansion of this pipeline, its twinning, that is the subject of concern.

The expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline involves twinning its entire length and operating in a way that will almost triple carrying capacity.  Image © National Energy Board

Back in that long-ago time when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister of Canada, our nation maintained or accelerated or consolidated the idea that our prosperity as a country was intrinsically tied to the rapid expansion of extraction and export of product from the tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta.  (I use the word ‘product’ for politeness; ‘bitumen’ is perhaps more accurate although untreated bitumen does not flow through pipelines, ‘glurp’ is another good descriptor and ‘oil’ is a euphemism designed to pretend that this product really is much the same as the oil that used to flow so freely, but now gets pumped, against its will, from what are called ‘conventional’ wells.)

PM Stephen, being a solidly conservative politician, could not really see government as much more than an entity for delivery of the set of laws, policies, decisions and actions undertaken by the State to clear away anything that might lie in the path of private corporations seeking to maximize profits for their shareholders.  Being an Albertan, he also saw Canada’s economy as pretty much Alberta’s economy, plus a tiny bit of other stuff done in other parts of the country.  Alberta, of course, devotes two weeks a year to cowboy hats and bucking broncos, and the rest of the year to digging up stuff to sell wherever there are buyers (or at least, that is what the movers and shakers in Calgary’s corporate towers would have us believe).  The Right Honorable Stephen bought into the Grand Tar Sands Myth, hook line and sinker, and dragged the rest of us along with him.  A couple of years ago, I called that myth a tar baby, because it seemed exceptionally good at entangling politicians who got anywhere near it, and Stephen was inextricably stuck to that tar baby.

Stephen Harper loved the tar sands, didn’t really understand environment.
© Theo Moudakis/Toronto Star

What is the Grand Tar Sands Myth?  Well, first of all, its adherents refer to it as the Magnificent Future that will be Delivered to All of Canada by the Rapid Expansion of Production and Export of Ethical Oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands.  (True believers really do speak in capital letters.)  One part of the myth was that Canada had a noble responsibility to develop the tar sands fully and as rapidly as possible, making this vital source of energy available to the less fortunate nations of the world, while building the prosperity that Canadians deserved.  Nothing should stand in the way of achieving this noble future.  Another part of the myth was that Canada’s economy was tightly tied to the success of the tar sands, and that any failure to sustain rapid growth in tar sands production and export would be met by near-total economic collapse, loss of jobs, and removal of Canada from the list of advanced nations.  The apocalypse would be Wagnerian in its fulsome comprehensiveness, and it would come very quickly if anything should create so much as a tiny pause in said expansion.  A final part was that all this effort could be undertaken with nary so much as a tiny ding to the pristine, white as snow, state of Alberta’s environment – environmentalists did not know what they were talking about.  Spelt out in august tones by learned men (always men) the Grand Tar Sands Myth is a tale that will keep children from their slumbers and their parents anxious and afraid as they huddle, wringing their hands, waiting for some good news out of Alberta.

In 2015, Stephen Harper was out of office, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ushering in his sunny ways government, setting out to right some of the wrongs put in place by his predecessor.  Being a true liberal, however, PM Justin is a middle of the road kind of guy – not too far to the left to upset those who do not trust government, and not too far to the right to risk losing the support of those who actually believe government has a reason for existence beyond acting as a giant snowplow/bulldozer clearing the way for whatever plans are being implemented by the wealthier members of the private sector.  And as any wise chicken knows, it’s OK to cross the road, but standing in the middle of it for any length of time is a perilous act.

The middle is not always the best place to be!  Image © Greg Perry/Winnipeg Free Press

As well as being a sunny liberal, PM Justin is Pierre Trudeau’s son, and so he felt compelled to work to convince the west, especially Alberta, that though he was his father’s son, he most definitely was not his father.  Soon after being elected Prime Minister, he was assuring voters that his government would be working hard in support of the Grand Tar Sands Myth, while simultaneously addressing Canada’s appalling record on climate change.  He was going to work just as hard as his predecessor to ensure the unfettered growth of tar sands production and export, while also taking actions that would place Canada among the world’s leaders in the battle to reduce the rate of climate change.  He’d do all this while remaining sunny (he was intent on bringing Canada to a new, brighter, happier place than it had been for the decade prior).

When PM Justin spoke about the economy, or the tar sands specifically, he spoke like a true believer in the Great Tar Sands Myth.  Canada’s economy is very strongly dependent on resource exploitation.  We have a moral obligation to extract and export tar sands oil.  Pipelines to tidewater are essential in this less certain world, and with proper consultation and appropriate concern for environmental issues, they can and will be built responsibly.  Alberta can depend on it.

When he spoke about climate change, he was equally sunny about Canada’s bright future as a leader in the technologies underlying renewable energy, and he was clear that Canada was going to do its full share to ensure the world transitioned to a far less carbon-intensive economy.  His government, barely into office, was notably active during the COP21 climate conference in Paris in November 2015, leading battles to cement the +2oC target, and install an even better +1.5oC aspirational target for future warming.  This was a pleasant change from past performances, surely an arbiter of great things to come.

So far, things have not worked out as we might have hoped.  A major part of the problem for Justin Trudeau lies in two facts: 1) The Great Tar Sands Myth has always been a fairy tale and more and more Canadians are seeing through it, and 2) Nature does not seek political compromises and Trudeau’s effort to compromise on pipelines and climate has floundered accordingly.  I’ll start by dissecting the myth, endeavoring not to get too stuck to the tar baby in the process.  Then I’ll look at what Canada needs to do if we are serious about doing our fair part of the effort to achieve +2oC.

The Grand Tar Sands Myth

This myth has several parts.  Tar sands bitumen production and export is a major part of Canada’s economy, we have a moral obligation to monetize our mineral resources, pipelines to tidewater are essential for the industry, and all can be done without serious environmental problems.  Let’s look at them one by one.  (In much of what follows, I am drawing on Canada’s Energy Outlook 2018.

How important to Canada’s national economy is the production and export of tar sands product?  Depending who you ask, it’s amazing how different a spin can be put on the answer to this simple question.  The bare facts are generally agreed:  In 2017, according to the National Energy Board, Canada produced 4.3Mb/d crude oil (million barrels per day).  Of this, 2.9Mb/d or about 63% was in bitumen extracted from the Athabasca tar sands, and worth about $ 43.6B to Canada’s GDP for that year according to StatsCan.  The production of conventional oil has been declining slowly since 1999, while tar sands production has increased four-fold from about 0.6 Mb/d.  Most (85%) of Canada’s oil is exported, mostly to US refineries.  There are currently about 400,000 people employed in the oil and gas industry in Canada, half in production and distribution and half in construction – as expected, employment can fluctuate substantially, depending on the oil price, and construction jobs are always short-term.  Tar sands-related jobs were about 75% of total oil and gas related jobs in 2015.

In Canada’s Energy Outlook, 2018, David Hughes uses StatsCan, National Energy Board and other official sources, reporting total revenue from extraction and processing of fossil fuels, plus related construction across Canada, was $137B or 8.3% of Canada’s GDP in 2015.  As a percentage, this is down from 10% in 1997, despite the substantial growth in production (combined gas and oil production up 33%).  More than 2/3 of this occurs in Alberta, where the tar sands represent 63% of total production but only 51% of economic value (tar sands production represents about 3% of Canada’s GDP in 2015).  Other sources put the tar sands annual value as less than 2% or more than 4% of Canada’s GDP (an HIS Cera 2014 report claimed a $91B contribution by tar sands operations to GDP in 2012, presumably by liberal inclusion of flow-on activity).  There are many ways to measure contributions to GDP.

The tar sands are also contributing less to government revenues than they were in past years.  Revenues come principally as royalties and corporate income tax, plus some lease and land sale income.  Hughes points out that StatsCan data reveal a 63% decline Canada-wide in oil and gas royalty revenue since 2000 despite a 27% increase in oil and gas production over that time.  Royalties are down 74% as a proportion of total oil and gas revenues over that time.  In Alberta, the decline in royalty revenue since 1980 has been 90% despite a doubling in production, and now amounts to just over 3% of Alberta revenue.  It seems we Canadians have been selling off our fossil fuel resources for less and less money as time goes by.  Just to rub in some salt, Hughes also documents a decline of 51% from its 2006 peak in corporate tax revenue in the industry.  While some will argue that the income taxes paid by workers in the industry should be included in revenues derived from the industry, most of these people would be working in other construction jobs if we were not employing them to build out the tar sands.

Royalties are way down, while production and corporate revenue are way up.  Does that make economic sense for Canada?  Image © Hughes GSR

I put these numbers together and draw the same conclusion Hughes does.  The tar sands industry is substantial, but it is not so big that Canada would collapse economically without it.  And its contribution to GDP and Government revenues has been falling despite its growth in output.

How about our moral obligation to dig up and ship out every mineral resource in this fair land?  Yes, this can generate jobs, but Canada has a well-educated work force that should be capable of doing far more than hewing wood, drawing water, or digging.  In 2018, we should be seeking to expand the kind of high-value-added, knowledge-based employment opportunities that might be able to provide the employment security that used to characterize heavy industry.  Also, there is something plainly dumb about exporting raw resources so people elsewhere can get the value-added profits – Canada has a long history of this kind of dumbness, ever since we started shipping furs to Europe.

Fur traders in Canada 1777.  Image © Library and Archives Canada

The transition away from a carbon-intensive economy is going to require heavy construction to provide enhanced electrical and data grids, expanded generation capacity in renewable and nuclear energies, modern, high-speed road and rail transport.  Construction skills learned in the tar sands are transferable.  Furthermore, just because we have resources does not mean we are obligated to use them – they don’t have use-by dates, and we can always dig them up later if new opportunities for creative use come along.  And, climbing briefly onto my moral high horse, if we properly understood our relationship to the environment, we’d not get stuck thinking of it as a larder full of stuff for us to use.  In fact, as I show below, we simply cannot afford to fully exploit the tar sands no matter what some tar baby-stuck politicians may think.  The failure to convert natural capital into dollars can become a virtue, as well as a great way to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere, something we all should reflect upon from time to time.

Pipelines to tidewater – it’s a cry heard repeatedly across this land in recent decades; some shout it out as a business necessity, something that must be ensured by any government worthy of its name in order to sustain the economy, others shout it out as a red line never to be crossed, a sign that Canada has no soul, has not listened to First Nations people or other affected parties, or is dead to the environmental risks that expansion of the tar sands enterprise will bring.  There is a lot of heat on both sides of this argument; is it possible to discover the truth?

The argument from proponents is that the Alberta oil industry suffers from a lack of capacity to ship the products from wells to refineries.  Buried in history, there were sound reasons for not building more refinery capacity within Alberta, I’m told. (How sound, I often wonder.)  At present the great majority of product heads south to the refineries of Texas, Oklahoma and so on, and the process of building additional pipeline capacity has become fraught as environmental restrictions have been tightened, and resistance to pipelines has grown.  The argument includes the word ‘tidewater’ because, as well as a need for additional capacity, there is a need for more flexibility with respect to markets, and an argument that Alberta tar sands bitumen sells at a steep discount relative to world oil prices because it goes to one, well-supplied market.  People who support this argument look askance at anyone who questions it – the economic logic seems so compelling.  But is it true?

Firstly, nobody claims that bitumen is piling up across the Alberta high prairie because there is no way to ship it out.  The claim is that the extra capacity is needed very soon to cope with the expansion of production that is going to occur.  And it is needed as soon as possible so we can capture the rich Asian market before other suppliers fill that demand and shut Canada out.  (Perhaps worth reflecting here that oil arriving on the west coast via the existing Trans-Mountain pipeline goes almost entirely to Washington and California; Asia does not seem to be clamoring for a piece of the action.)

I have reported before on David Hughes masterful documentation of the flaw in this pipeline capacity argument.  He repeats the argument in Canada’s Energy Outlook 2018, and I have yet to see anybody refute it.  (It’s uncanny how the proponents of pipeline building continue to make the argument, but don’t bother to shut down Hughes’s traitorous claims.  If he is incorrect, surely one or another oil tycoon could take the time to point that fact out?)

Fig. 81 Canada’s Energy Outlook 2018, showing how existing pipeline capacity is sufficient for need well past 2030, and with a tiny use of rail through 2040 so long as Alberta’s cap on tar sands production is complied with.  Both Keystone XL and Trans-Mountain expansion are surplus to need.  Why are they being built?  Image © CCPA.

This chart contains the germ of Hughes’s debunking claim.  Using data from CAPP and National Energy Board and updating his presentation to take account of recent decisions on pipelines, the figure shows that there is ample capacity into the future at least to 2040 for any realistic expansion in production.  True, most of the capacity shunts the bitumen south to Texas and Louisiana the way it has always been, but separately Hughes reveals that the price discount that requires pipelines to tidewater was a transitory thing that has now disappeared again, apart from a residual amount that has to do with the lack of desirability of this product relative to oils from other places.  Like it or not, Canada’s Ethical Oil is nasty stuff to handle, and refining it costs more than is the case for other crude.  It will always command a lower price.

True, back in the heady days when everyone ‘knew’ that tar sands production was going to triple by 2030, the need for additional pipeline capacity in the near future was a strong argument in favor of building more of them.  But that scenario is long gone, and there now exists a cap on tar sands production put in place by the Alberta government as part of its own program for responding to climate change.  Hughes’s argument against additional pipelines is simply that if the cap is going to be complied with, and if Canada is going to at least try to meet its self-imposed obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, then production capacity in the tar sands is not going to expand to the point where additional pipeline capacity will be necessary.  Why build them if they are not needed?

The final part of the Myth is that a rapid expansion of tar sands production is not only necessary and desirable, it is compatible with sound, sustainable environmental management including mitigation of climate change.  To deal with this we must look at emissions due to extraction and processing (to the point of export) and Canada’s permissible total cumulative emissions if we are going to meet our Paris Agreement targets.

While some may call it ethical, tar sands ‘oil’ is definitely dirty and hard to handle.  Because it is a semisolid, it does not flow readily in wells or in pipelines.  Some of it is extracted from vast open pit mines requiring heavy equipment and the energy such equipment consumes.  Mostly it is too deep to be dug up and is mined by injecting steam deep underground to warm up the bitumen and make it more fluid.  Producing and pumping all that steam adds to the cost, and to the energy cost, of bitumen mining.  Either way, bitumen extraction is an energy-intensive operation.

Once at the surface, the product must be modified to make it possible to ship it through pipelines.  Some of the peanut butter-like bitumen is upgraded to produce synthetic crude oil; most is mixed with diluents to make it more liquid, either before upgrading, or before shipping as dilbit (diluted bitumen – the stuff that will flow through the Trans-Mountain expansion).  Upgrading is a set of energy-intensive fractionation and chemical processes that strip out much of the sulfur and heavy metals.  Adding diluent is a simpler, physical mixing process that dilutes the bitumen with other hydrocarbon thinning agents.  These diluents are mostly natural gas condensate, a widely available byproduct of oil and gas mining, but refined naptha or synthetic crude (from upgrading) may also be used.  The industry even builds pipelines for shipping diluent to points where it will be combined with the bitumen (the existing Trans-Mountain line ships condensate from the west coast to Alberta, and then ships dilbit back to the coast).  All of these steps add cost and consume energy.

Getting tar sands product from the ground to the foreign refinery, whether in the US or elsewhere, is thus an expensive, and an energy intensive operation.  The energy cost or EROI (energy return on investment) averages about 4:1 for in situ operations and about 8:1 for surface mining and upgrading.  Conventional oil mining has an EROI in the 11:1 to 17:1 range (the ratio refers to units of energy obtained vs units of energy consumed in extraction and processing).  When you are using the equivalent of one barrel of oil for every four barrels you obtain, profit margins are thin.

From an environmental perspective, emissions of CO2 per barrel are an important characteristic, and as expected, tar sands bitumen compares unfavorably with other sources of fuel.  Total emissions resulting from getting tar sands bitumen out of the ground and to refineries range from 189.1 to 254.6 kg CO2 per barrel, compared to 97.6 kg CO2 per barrel for typical conventional Canadian oil, and 55.1 kg CO2 per barrel for Hibernia oil (Newfoundland), a high-quality, light, sweet oil.

These high emissions per barrel produced make operation of the tar sands projects now the most important source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.  Total emissions in 2015 from this source were 71Mt CO2e (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) and Alberta has legislated a 100 Mt CO2e per year cap on total tar sands emissions as part of its climate change policy.  On current growth projections, the industry will reach this cap in about 2024.  The tar sands currently contribute about 10% of Canada’s total emissions.  By 2024, the cap limits production, although improved technology permits continued slow growth in output so that tar sands production reaches about 4.5 Mb/d at an emissions cost of 100 Mt CO2e per year by 2040.  And this is where the real crunch comes; tar sands production creates too much CO2 pollution to be compatible with Canada doing its part on climate change.

To summarize at this point, every part of the Grand Tar Sands Myth is debunked.  This is an important but small portion of Canada’s economy – a fact revealed when tar sands activity collapsed during and following the 2008 recession, while Canada, overall, did better than many G8 nations.  We do not have some moral obligation to fully exploit Alberta’s tar sands, and certainly no obligation to dig them up and export them quickly.  We have sufficient pipeline capacity already, and the tidewater argument (the price differential for Canadian oil) is invalid.  And the GHG emissions that result from tar sands exploitation are so massive that continued mining at current or expanded rates is incompatible with any reasonable response by Canada to climate change.  (Note I have not bothered to comment on the other environmental impacts – consumption of water in a semi-arid environment with a drying climate, heavy metal and PAH contamination of the land and water, low altitude NO, SO2 and particulate air pollution, vast, toxic tailings ponds and no known processes for eventual environmental restoration – I’ve commented on them in the past.)

Canada’s commitment under the 2015 Paris agreement

Every signatory country to the Paris Agreement is required to provide a voluntary commitment on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  Canada has done this and had made earlier commitments with reference to the Kyoto Agreement, and the Copenhagen Accord.  For Kyoto, Canada pledged to reduce emissions to 6% below levels in 1990 by 2012.  For Copenhagen, Canada pledged to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  For Paris, Canada pledged to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, and ultimately by 80% below 2005 levels by 2050.  These commitments have all been judged insufficient by independent bodies, given Canada’s capacity to do more.

So much for promises.  The trend in emissions in Canada had been upward since 1990 until a slight dip during the 2008-9 recession, followed by a more gradual increase since.  Throughout the Harper years, government obfuscated, including the memorable phrase “half-way to our 2020 target” when emissions were actually increasing instead of decreasing.  With the arrival of PM Justin’s sunny ways government, there was a sense that things would be different, but the pledge made in Paris, was the one prepared by the Harper government before they lost power (woefully inadequate), and it has yet to be strengthened.  Meanwhile targets are failing to be met.

Environment and Natural Resources Canada reports Canadian GHG emissions in 1990 were 603 Mt CO2e (these data do not include any contribution from land use changes such as timber harvest or reforestation).  In 2005, they had risen to 732 Mt CO2e, and they reached 745 Mt CO2e in 2007.  In 2012 (the Kyoto target date) they had declined slightly to 707 Mt CO2e, or 17% above 1990 levels – 23% higher than the Kyoto target!  In 2020, current trends suggest emissions will be in the range 693 to 725 Mt CO2e, well above the 607 Mt CO2e target!  In 2030, the expectation is 636 – 775 Mt CO2e, again well above the 512 Mt CO2e target.  Canada is doing a deplorable job of meeting its own targets, and growth in tar sands production is one of the main roadblocks standing in the way.  In fact, as this graph shows, if Canada were somehow able to get onto a path towards meeting the 2030 and 2050 targets (the dotted line), the planned growth in tar sands production – fully supported as part of our sunny ways – requires that all non-gas and oil emissions in our economy must be cut in half by 2030, and must be pinched off almost completely by 2040.  The likelihood of that happening is sort of like the sky outside my house filling up with a flotilla of winged pigs.

The inadequacy of Canada’s targets also needs reflection.  If the world behaves as Canada is behaving in setting too timid emissions reduction targets (and many countries are doing as poor a job in this respect as Canada), the world is heading for a +4oC warming by the end of this century and further warming in the century following.  Kiss 2oC goodbye, maybe?  Or maybe recognize that sometime soon, enough people will realize that we really do not want a 4oC world, and countries will step up to do a better job of wrestling climate change to the ground.  That means substantially stronger commitments to reduce emissions, and actions to achieve those commitments.  Where does that leave Canada’s tar sands?  Or, more particularly, where does that leave Canada?  It leaves us recognizing that, barring some amazing new technology that permits continued use of oil and gas, with the CO2 somehow captured and stored away from the atmosphere, most of the tar sands bitumen that we plan to extract and process between now and 2040 is going to stay in the ground.  We cannot afford to unpack it.  Furthermore, as well as keeping the tar sands in the ground, we will be rapidly transitioning away from use of all fossil fuels by mid-century – just 32 years from now.  Now that is a task that will provide ample employment, government revenue, and GDP value to replace the tar sands industry – an interesting form of mining for a strange product during its relatively short history in Canada.

Politics, Logic, and Pipelines

Back to the present and the Trans-Mountain expansion.  One of the most difficult lessons for politicians and businessmen is that Nature does not compromise.  Nature just is.  Nature operates by various natural laws, and these laws are immutable.

The world is currently starting to grasp the fact that climate change is real, that it is happening, and that its consequences for our happy little lives are every bit as challenging as scientists warned they would be.  North Carolina is just now grappling with a relatively weak hurricane Florence – only a category 1 when it finally reached land, and rapidly downgraded to tropical storm status.  But climate change has ensured a) that Florence would move slowly (weather across North America has been moving slowly for months now because a warm Arctic is causing the jet stream to meander more), and b) would carry immense amounts of water to be dropped on the land as torrential rains.  North Carolina famously legislated sea level rise out of existence in 2012; a pity they did not do the same for hurricanes.

Preparing for Florence at North Topsail Beach, North Carolina.  How long will we keep pretending this is land rather than a shallow sand bar?  Image © Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Justin Trudeau figured he could compromise on climate and oil, achieving a classic win-win, while boosting his popularity with environmentalists wanting a serious commitment to climate change, and Albertans wanting the son of Pierre Trudeau to support their oil industry against those who would shut it down.  If anything, climate is changing more rapidly than expected, and the absolute inadequacy of what Canada has committed to so far in terms of mitigation is becoming more and more obvious.  Never mind the fact that actions have been far less committed than words.  Environmentalists have become tired of the Liberal government going gently, gently on climate, rather than supportive of a government that claims it is trying to do the right thing.  Poor Environment Minister McKenna, hosting a meeting of G8 Environment Ministers in Halifax this week, finds herself forced to talk up the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans because it is a relatively straightforward issue that might get a measurable nudge forward at this conference, in contrast to climate change (also on the agenda).  McKenna needs the occasional win, and nothing is happening in Canada on climate except for a growing noise from unenlightened provincial Premiers who want to challenge the planned federal carbon tax in the courts.

Nor has the task of appeasing the oil industry gone well.  The environmental opposition to expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline is as strong as ever.  Kinder-Morgan, the previous owner of the pipeline, eventually decided the battle was not worth it, and Justin Trudeau, in desperation, announced Canada would buy it and complete it.  Kinder-Morgan’s decision, made on an evaluation of the business case, provided a glorious opportunity to stop his impossible straddle between the tar-baby and the climate, but PM Justin decided he could not afford the political cost of ‘abandoning Alberta’.  Now Canada owns the pipeline, and the intention to get it expanded is as strong as ever.

And so, government funds will be spent to employ some construction workers and buy some pipe and whatever else is needed to build a pipeline we do not need.  Justin knows in his heart that the days of the tar sands are numbered even if he mostly avoids saying so.  He did let it slip out once early last year, referring to a ‘managed phase-out’ of the tar sands, but apologized quickly for ‘mis-speaking’.

So here we are, proud Canadian owners of a pipeline for an industry that shows plenty of evidence that its glory days are behind it.  Major overseas investors are walking away or announcing intentions to divest from the oil industry.  Capital investment in the tar sands has dropped to about $12B in 2018 from $25B three years earlier.  Jeff Lewis, writing in the Globe & Mail this April, said, “Here we have oil [globally] almost back to a 4.5 year high and Canadian names are languishing” – his meaning – that the lack of value in the tar sands was recognized within the industry.  Jeffrey Sachs, also in the Globe & Mail in April, in an article titled “Forget Trans Mountain” pointed to the fact that the world must substantially decarbonize by 2050, and that higher-cost, higher-polluting sources of oil will be the first to go.  In his view, Canada should be investing in a strengthened, North American, electricity grid, and selling low-carbon hydroelectric power to the USA which wants low-carbon sources of power.  This would be a far more profitable, and a far more environmentally responsible action than paying for the Trans Mountain pipeline for nothing to nowhere.  Of course, Sachs is just a US academic (Columbia University) who does not understand the need to support Alberta’s oil industry.   We Canadians know better.  Or do we?

The Trans Mountain pipeline – will it become the pipeline to nowhere?  Image © Kinder-Morgan

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | 2 Comments

Restoring Our Relationship with the Natural World


On 6th August, 2018, a paper was published on-line at the PNAS site.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS to its friends), is a highly respected science journal that has been published since 1915.  The article, by Will Steffen, of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Australian National University, and 15 co-authors from European and US institutions, was titled Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.  In it, Steffen and colleagues claimed that there now exists a significant risk that human-caused warming has already brought the planet close to a tipping point beyond which the action of various, naturally-occurring, positive feedback mechanisms will push the planet towards further warming.  Rather than allowing stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises, we would experience continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway, even as human emissions are reduced.  Their use of “Hothouse Earth” undoubtedly helped garner attention, but the idea of a runaway greenhouse effect has been around since James Hansen wrote Storms of my Grandchildren in 2009.  It’s a chilling prospect, but a careful read of Steffen et al suggests we are not quite there yet.  Maybe we will buckle down and undertake the massive behavioral and technological change to transition ourselves away from use of polluting sources of energy.

Planet Earth has been cycling around the glacial-interglacial cycle since the start of the Pleistocene, 2.6 million years ago.  Recent human activities have bounced it outside the normal path of that cycle (small globe just above center of image).  Steffen and colleagues fear we may be close to a tipping point at which non-anthropogenic, positive feedbacks will propel us onto a new trajectory towards a hothouse Earth with temperatures well above present day conditions.  With appropriate human action, it may be possible to move onto a sustainable path with temperatures little warmer than at present.  Points A, B, C, and D on the hothouse path refer to sets of conditions that may be reminiscent of times in the distant past, when Earth was substantially warmer than today.  Image © W. Steffen and PNAS

The notion that what people do as we operate our global economy plays a major role in determining the state of the planet is still novel, poorly appreciated, and even not yet heard by many people (see my earlier comments here).  The idea that we cannot continue on our present path, or even one close to it, without causing great changes to the nature of this planet remains an idea that many people have never taken seriously, and the idea that we must begin to act to steer the planet in a favorable direction is even less appreciated (I elaborate on this here and here).

In recent months I have been mulling over why this message is not getting through, because despite the growing evidence of the serious problems we are creating for ourselves, and despite the growing effectiveness with which this story is being disseminated around the world, only a minority of us understand either the seriousness or the urgency of our predicament.  Although people like me often talk about the environmental crisis, it is a growing crisis for our own way of life.  Rational self-interest should ensure that we are much more concerned than we are.

Few of us understand the real challenge of the Anthropocene; not only must we care for our planet, we have to steer it to safe places using skills we’ve never used before, much as modern Hawaiians learned to use ancient skills to move safely across its oceans.
Photo of Earth
©, Photo of Hokule’a © Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Among the several possibilities for why most people still don’t get this message – I have blogged about these possibilities here and here – is the nature of our relationship to the rest of the biosphere.  Because we have objectified nature, turning it into a storehouse of things freely available for our use and a garbage container for our waste, it is difficult for us to recognize that we might have responsibilities to nature as well as rights.  Because we have become so very powerful, we need to temper our actions so that we preserve the status of the biosphere, maintaining it in a state that, among other things, favors our own continued well-being.  In short, perhaps we need to evaluate and reconfigure our relationship to the natural world and begin to act as if we are an important part of the biosphere rather than its owner.  With that changed perspective, we’d be better able to accept the need to behave in ways that are environmentally sustainable.  And that brings me to #2018MSE.

Muskoka Summit on Environment

On May 24-25, 2018, the fifth Muskoka Summit on Environment took place at the Rene Caisse Theatre.  The fact that Summits have been held every other year since 2010, in a tiny town of 16,000 residents, speaks volumes for the degree of commitment towards environment in this part of Ontario.  True, we live in a marvelous place of rocks and trees and water, one of the top tourism destinations in North America, but Muskoka is also a municipality which walks the talk.  Municipal governments, the business community, and residents all recognize the importance of our vibrant natural environment to our economy and to our lives.  The existence of the Muskoka Summit is proof of that commitment, and a demonstration that even tiny communities, devoid of a university or other center of academic excellence, are able to develop ways to come together and deliberate on important environmental issues.  As in previous years, I took part as one of the organizers.

One tradition we have maintained ever since the first 2010 Summit has been to develop a communiqué that summarizes the outcome of our discussions.  In 2018, the Summit dealt with our relationship with the natural world, a relationship we find in serious need of restoration.  This year’s communiqué was not a statement outlining the steps to take in rebuilding that relationship – we did not arrive at a specific set of steps in just two days.  It was, instead, an attempt to state the problem, make suggestions, and raise possibilities.  Getting to that point was an achievement, given that sizeable numbers of people in western society have never given a thought to the nature of our relationship to the natural world, never mind, to the possibility that it needs to change.

It did not end up as a one-pager, let alone a single 288-character tweet, and it’s possible that at just over 4 pages it will prove too long for many people to read it through.  But I have faith that some people will.  And I also believe that it makes some arguments that deserve a wider exposure than it has received so far.  What follows is an unedited text (you can also download it here).  My hope is that it will stimulate the kind of thinking, and the kind of action, that will help bring about a major realignment of humanity’s view of itself in the world.  I see such a realignment in our future, giving far greater recognition to the needs of the biosphere than we in the consumer-based, global economy have typically shown.

Restoring our Relationship with the Natural World

A Statement from the 2018 Muskoka Summit on Environment



In 2018, humanity faces environmental challenges of epic proportion.  Through our success in building an enormous global population and a similarly large and dynamic economy, we have created a complex web of interacting problems that threaten the continued reliability of this planet as a place in which humans can live their lives.  Our actions have made us a major driver of the substantial environmental changes now taking place: changes to the climate, the landscape, the structure and dynamics of natural ecosystems, the availability of essential nutrients and that of numerous pollutants, and both the abundance and the genetic and biological diversity of life itself.  Ironically, we mostly understand what we are doing, and how we might correct our behavior.  Yet we are failing to mobilize sufficient will to act to make the changes that are necessary.  Telling people about the problems and asking for corrective action simply is not working.

The goal of this Summit was to examine our relationship with the natural world, and ask whether, and how, we might change it to build a greater commitment to act to bring the human enterprise into harmony with the biosphere.  Each of our speakers brought a particular perspective; this statement sets out the problem, and possible solutions. 

Our prevailing attitude to nature – that we own it, have dominion over it, or are entitled to use it – both objectifies nature, and sets us clearly outside it.  With nature objectified, environmental problems become minor ones, even irrelevant when compared to political, economic or other societal problems.  The reality is that humanity is one of many living parts of a complex, interconnected system that sustains life on this, the only planet known to support life.  We are inside nature, not outside.  We must do a much better job of informing people of the many ways in which environmental problems impinge on human well-being.  In this way we can better convey the urgency with which the environmental crisis must be addressed – ignoring it directly impacts our own lives and those of our children.  We must also do a better job of reporting environmental successes and describing solutions to present problems.  In other words, we have a major communication problem, rather than a science problem before us.  We can solve that problem using a coalition that draws from a broad range of expertise and experience to convey the reality of humanity in the 21st century — that we are a part of the biosphere, and that pragmatic self-interest, rather than tree-hugging naiveté, drives calls to alter attitudes and behavior.  Taking this approach, we should find far more success in reaching out to other people for whom the natural world is still a set of things available for our use.

Our perspective on the world

When we are asked to visualize a map of the world, most of us see some approximation of a Mercator projection, north pole at the top, with the familiar shapes of the land masses neatly subdivided into an irregular checkerboard of small and large patches in various primary colors.  For many of us, Canada is a cheerful red!  The real world does not look a bit like this; it is a mainly blue sphere with land masses colored in greens and browns, and any patchwork evident bears no relationship to the patterns we imagine.  Our image of the world has been shaped by our education, traditions, and cultural identity; it is an image which emphasizes ownership.  We imagine the land masses, and increasingly the coastal oceans, to all be owned by individual humans, by corporations or other socioeconomic constructs, or by one of a series of nation states.

Legal systems are societal constructs that exist to facilitate the interactions among humans, providing a framework of rules that helps us conduct our individual lives in ways that minimize conflicts with each other for space, for mates, and for food and other resources.  Two thousand years ago, legal systems were designed to sustain strongly hierarchical social structures with a sovereign individual at the top of the pyramid.  Over time, legal systems have evolved to lessen the differences in rights among individuals.

When the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, voted to approve the final text of its Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776, it included the now well-known phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  That phrase, novel in its time, referred to white men with property.  Only in subsequent years did the US legal system extend these ‘unalienable rights’ to less wealthy men, to women, or to people of color.  Legal systems in Canada and other nations have undergone similar patterns of change[1] as humans, worldwide, broadened our conception of the entities deserving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Non-human lifeforms and the forests, watersheds, or other ecosystems they comprise have until very recently been granted no such rights.  Instead, they have been objectified and treated (if treated at all) as property, things to be owned and used.  Meanwhile, non-living human constructs such as corporations, states or nations have been declared to be persons with most or all of the same rights as other people.[2]

It does not have to be this way.  In some societies that have developed outside the western tradition, recognition of rights has extended beyond humanity and its constructs.  This may also have been the case in our earliest social groups prior to the development of written law and the rigorously-structured legal systems mostly familiar to us.  It is worth reflecting on why legal systems which narrowly circumscribe those entities entitled to rights and privileges have come to predominate in the modern world.  It is worth asking whether this needs to be the case, and whether this is a good thing.

Our impacts on the environment

At present, humanity consumes natural resources at about one and a half times the rate at which they can be produced by our planet[3].  The waste products of our economies and our individual lives place nearly impossible burdens on natural systems, polluting water, soil and atmosphere.  Our impacts are now so large that human activities are a major driver in the planetary-scale changes taking place.  Many of these changes, such as those in climate, are now far more rapid than at any time in the history of civilization from the earliest dawn of agriculture.  The difference between this human-influenced world, and the world of the Holocene (which commenced 11,500 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene), is so great that the world geological community has proposed naming the present age the Anthropocene (the start date is currently under discussion).  Our impacts on the planet are expected to increase substantially as our population grows from today’s 7.6 billion to about 10 billion by 2050, and as our average standards of living increase across the world.  Our growing impacts have severe consequences for the biosphere, for many individual species and ecosystems, and for our own lives.[4]  While the ideal of environmentally sustainable human development has long been aspired to, and was formalized in the 1987 Brundtland Report[5], and in the 1992 Rio Declaration[6], the trend in subsequent years has been for continued degradation of environmental quality when viewed at a global scale.  We now face challenges of existential proportion.

In 2018, the UN IPBES[7] released a series of reports on impacts of land degradation.  They reported that less than 25% of the global land surface remains free of substantial negative human impacts.  This fraction is projected to become less than 10% by 2050, mostly in desert, high altitude, tundra or polar regions largely incapable of supporting human societies.  This degradation contributes significantly to biodiversity loss and loss of ecosystem services such as water purification, food security and energy provisioning.  It compromises the lives of 3.2 billion people and reduces global economic output by 10%.  The largest driver of land degradation is the expansion and poor management of croplands and grazing land which now comprise more than one third of all land on the planet.  Some ecosystems have been hit harder than others: globally we have lost 54% of wetlands since 1900 (an 87% reduction in the last 300 years).  All of Muskoka’s forests have been clear-cut at least once in the last 200 years.

In the oceans, the extent of human impacts began later, but is now catching up to that on land.  No part of the oceans remains unfished, and we have reduced the standing stock of fishery species by 90% over the last 100 years.  Bottom trawling, which resuspends 22 gigatonnes of sediment per year, has substantially degraded benthic habitat over 20 million km2 or 75% of all continental shelves, significantly reducing the productive capacity of these environments.[8]  Chronic pollution has generated over 400 dead zones in coastal waters[9], and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, three times the size of France contains about 80,000 tonnes of floating plastic debris[10].  Our atmospheric releases of CO2 have not only warmed the oceans, but the dissolved CO2 is reducing ocean pH at a rate more than 10 times faster than at any time in the last 66 million years, threatening the existence of many marine species.[11]  Our warming of the planet has likely already shifted the equilibria of the immense Greenland and Antarctic ice masses sufficiently to ensure sea level will continue to rise for the next several hundred years, submerging all of our coastal cities in the process.

There is now a real risk that human activities could push the Earth system outside that state in which it has existed throughout the Holocene, likely destabilizing it in the process.  A Holocene planet is the only planet civilized humans have known, and it is not clear that we could easily adapt our agriculture or our economies to a radically different world.  A precautionary approach suggests we’d be wise to rein in our environmentally destructive behavior and learn to live within the parameters set by the planet, as governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.[12]

Our need for a new perspective

Our impacts on our planet, as witnessed during the last couple of decades, were anticipated by scientists working in the mid-20th century.  Science is now providing clear projections of what the next few decades will be like, depending on whether, and how we modify our activities.  News about the environmental crisis is widely available, especially news of ongoing climate change.

There are substantial changes being made within our societies:  Our care of environment is much more effective than it used to be, at least in those places where a serious effort to manage is made.  Most nations are now transitioning towards a carbon-free economy that uses energy more efficiently and chooses non-polluting energy sources where possible.  And yet we do not seem to be able to move quickly enough.[13]  The global rate of greenhouse gas emissions has not yet begun to fall.  Most national commitments under the Paris Agreement are insufficient (often woefully insufficient) to achieve the objective of no more than a 2oC increase (from preindustrial levels) in average global temperature by 2100.[14]  Land degradation, biodiversity loss, and many other measures of our destructive impacts all continue to worsen, sometimes at increasing rates.[15]  Obvious problems, such as massive plastic, pharmaceutical, and other chemical pollution, grow worse day by day in the face of too feeble efforts to correct them.  Short-term personal, corporate, or political interests continue to be put ahead of longer-term communal or global interests whenever they clash.

Providing people with the facts of the environmental crisis, as understood by scientists, has failed to be a strongly motivating factor getting most people to change the ways in which we interact with nature.  Indeed, in some countries the topic has become heavily politicized and the science is either ‘believed’ or ‘denied’ depending on one’s political affiliation.   We need more effective ways of raising awareness of the need to change.

It seems very likely that our prevailing perspective on environment is a large part of our problem.  Our conventional societal attitudes and legal systems can blind us to the need to manage environment for the long term rather than for today.  Our objectification of nature is blinding us to the fact that nature has needs that must be fulfilled; that it cannot continue to provide for our needs, no matter how we treat it; that in the final analysis, the physical, chemical, and biological laws of nature trump any laws crafted by humans.




Several of the Summit speakers, from different perspectives, talked of the need to approach the natural world with respect, and the ethical responsibility we share to care for it.  While such ideas resonated with Summit participants, these are not widely accepted ideas among those of us raised in a modern consumer society.  We must find ways to bring such ideas to the broader community, to help all of us understand that we are a part of the biosphere rather than its owners, and especially to appreciate that the environmental crisis directly threatens our own lives, not just the well-being of natural systems.

Bringing about such a fundamental philosophical shift within society is a major educational challenge; one that cannot be met solely by asking scientists to make the results of their research accessible to the public.  To achieve it will require a multifaceted effort that draws upon cultural, spiritual, esthetic, economic and political, as well as scientific traditions.  Achieving this change in perspective will also require modifications to conventional legal and economic thinking, although the argument that this more inclusive perspective is incompatible with a democratic, capitalist society is almost certainly overstated.

Acknowledging the need for this fundamental philosophical shift does not obviate the need to continue efforts to address specific aspects of the environmental crisis, but it does help reinforce the idea that each specific issue is part of an overarching problem – the problem of how we moderate our footprint on this planet.  Individuals adopting a more inclusive perspective on the world are likely to be more sympathetic to the need to act quickly and responsibly to address environmental ills.

Discussions at the Summit revealed a number of strategies for more effective engagement.

  • We have much to learn from other societies, and from other genders, ethnicities or cultural groups within our own.
  • Disciplines outside the sciences, including indigenous knowledge and faith traditions, have valuable messages to enrich our understanding of this world we inhabit and share, but while seeking to speak beyond the choir, we must learn to really listen to one another when we offer differing ideas.
  • Participants recognized that effective communication is a learnable skill, one that should be mastered by all those interested in a more ethical relationship with the rest of the biosphere.
  • We must become better story-tellers, using available data to tell engaging stories and to paint clear pictures of the consequences of NOT acting to correct environmental wrongs.
  • We must make even greater efforts to truly engage the political community, getting beyond the photo op in a political world of short timelines, and constant campaigning.
  • We should focus on involving our children in the natural world, since you only take care of what you love, and love of nature is readily accepted by the young.
  • We might also search for new ways to recognize the rights of wildlife, trees, or nature itself, and the obligations those rights impose upon us; ways that resonate in a fast-paced world of gadgets and media that isolate us from environment.  Would we not benefit from giving Muskoka the respect and care it deserves by striving to turn it into the greenest region of Ontario?

While there is clearly much work to be done, there are reasons to be optimistic.  We have solved complex environmental problems in the past, and we largely understand the problems that currently confront us.  There are feasible solutions, using current technology, for the environmental challenges we face.  Indeed, the global environmental crisis could become the impetus we need to create a world where people live in genuine harmony with nature, and there are encouraging signs that we may be starting to move in that direction.  Achieving that world is a worthy though challenging goal for every individual who values life.  Continuing down that path requires only that each of us takes another step.  And then another, preferably while holding hands in a forward-thinking coalition.

It is much easier to care for a place if you love it first.  It is easier to love it, if you see yourself as part of it.  North Muskoka River, 2013.


[1] See Boyd, David R., 2017, The Rights of Nature: a legal revolution that could save the world, ECW Press, Toronto.

[2] Ibid.  Boyd’s book provides an accessible account of the evolution of legal thought and legislation on rights

[3] ‘our planet’ is used to refer to the planet on which humanity exists, not to suggest that we own it.  It is our home in this universe.

[4] Data on the current extent of human impacts on our planet are available in Steffan, W., et al., 2015, Science 347 (622), 1259855; Rockström, J., and M. Klum, 2015, Big World Small Planet, Yale University Press, New Haven; and many other articles and books.

[5] The Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future was the final, and primary product of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission, established as an independent entity in 1984 by the UN General Assembly, and chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway.

[6] The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was the primary agreement of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 3 to 14 June, 1992.  The Rio Declaration included 27 principles intended to guide sustainable development by the 170 signatory countries, including (#15) the precautionary principle, and (#16) the polluter pays principle.

[7] IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a UN organization, released the Summary for Policy-Makers for its thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration in March 2018.  It can be downloaded at

[8] Oberle, FKJ, et al. 2016, What a drag: Quantifying the global impact of chronic bottom trawling on continental shelf sediment, Journal of Marine Systems 159: 109-119.

[9] Diaz, RJ, & R Rosenberg, 2008, Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems, Science 321: 926-929

[10] LeBreton, L, et al., 2018, Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic, Scientific Reports 8: 4666

[11] Jewett, L & A. Romanou, 2017, Ocean acidification and other ocean changes. Chapter 13 in: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I (DJ Wuebbles, et al. Eds.), U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, pp. 364-392.

[12] Rockström, J, & M Klum, 2015, Big World Small Planet, Yale University Press.

[13] Boyd, DR, 2017, The Rights of Nature, ECW Press, Toronto

[14] Hill, JS, reports on emissions commitments on 4th May 2018, at Clean Technica: The “Paris Tango” — Some Countries Step Forward On Climate Action, Others Step Back

[15] IPBES, 2018, Thematic Assessment of Land Degradation and Restoration, Summary for Policy-Makers.




Categories: Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics | 1 Comment