On May 9th, the Globe and Mail, arguably Canada’s premier newspaper, published an editorial that was very strange. The editors seemed unclear about what they believe, although it seems to be a response from Canada to recent remarks by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres about our collective failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Among other not very diplomatic comments, Guterres had said,
“Some Government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency… high‑emitting Governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability.”
The Globe’s editorial? “Hi, my name is Canada. I’m an oil superpower.”
The editors report that Canada’s oil exports, a significant proportion of all exports, have increased 25% since 2015 when the Trudeau government took power. We are expanding our output of oil at the very time we have a government that claims it is reducing emissions. Look at Canada’s recent actions on fossil fuels. On April 6th, the Trudeau government announced its environmental approval for the large, deepwater Bay du Nord oil project off Newfoundland. This $12bn play jointly operated by Equinor, of Norway, and Husky (owned by Cenovus) is not expected to start producing until 2028 and to operate for 30 years (that’s 2058 if you are counting). Jobs and economic conditions in Newfoundland were deemed more important than reducing Canada’s development of new oil fields in very deep water with all the risks that entails. There is some evidence that the environmental approval was pushed through despite objections from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or some indigenous groups. Jobs and royalties trump environmental concerns once again.
Bay du Nord will use a floating production, storage and offloading vessel (FPSO) like this as it drills in water as deep as 1200m east of Newfoundland. Lots of ways this could go wrong! Image © Equinor.
One day later, on April 7th, the unveiling of Canada’s 2022 budget revealed a plan to spend $2.6bn between now and 2027, and a further $1.5bn per year until 2030, to cover the vast majority of the costs of the oil industry to develop carbon capture and storage as a way of decarbonizing Canada’s oil. Given the outrageous profits oil companies have been enjoying over recent years, it is a complete mystery to me why the government has to add to the subsidies it already doles out to this sector so they can do something that they would probably do anyway to make their product more competitive on world markets. Indeed, just one week previously, when the Environment Minister unveiled Canada’s long-awaited 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, it revealed an intention to reduce oil and gas sector emissions by 42% between 2019 and 2030, and to do this by cutting the carbon intensity of Canadian oil to below the global average of 50 kg CO2 per barrel, while increasing production by 33%. That’s right. The Canadian government is paying the oil and gas sector $7bn between now and 2030 so the industry can partly decarbonize its product while also increasing production by one third. I think Canada was one of those countries Antonio Guterres was talking about – say one thing, do another, and ensure the fossil fuel industry grows as much as it can.
There are lots of things Alberta’s oil and gas sector could do to reduce emissions. Reducing the wasteful flaring of methane is one, developing carbon capture techniques is another. The sector seems unable to afford any such actions without substantial government funding – not a sign of an industry behaving ethically (remember ‘ethical oil’?).
Image © Jason Franson/Canadian Press.
Back to that Globe & Mail editorial of May 9th. It begins by proudly noting that Canadian exports have surged and are now at an all-time high of $63.6bn in March 2022, and that energy exports account for more than a quarter of this amount. Our exports of oil and gas are important to our economy, and they continue to grow (despite all the moaning about lack of pipelines). Our federal and provincial governments help that process along, with numerous subsidies such as the one just announced for carbon capture and storage.
The editorial reports our exports of oil to the US have increased 25% since the Trudeau government came to power in 2015. This is seen as a responsible action, responding to global demand for an essential product. (Canada is such a noble country.) Indeed, the editors go so far as to say,
“as long as there is so much demand for Canadian oil, notably from the U.S., there is no economic or environmental logic in trying to artificially restrict Canadian oil production. The only result would be less money flowing into Canada, and more going to every other country with oil reserves.”
No economic or environmental logic? If every oil-producing nation adopts this logic (and, believe me, they are), the world will continue to see its use of fossil fuels grow year by year into the far future. If the Globe editors had taken a minute to raise their heads, look around, and take a wider and longer-term view, they would have found plenty of environmental, economic and ethical arguments against doing what Canada is doing. Our governments are paying lip-service to the need to reduce emissions, putting programs in place, and setting aspirational goals for years down the road, while they busily continue business as usual with their fossil friends. (I said governments, because provinces like Alberta and Newfoundland are just as willing as the federal government to pay the gas and oil sector to come play in their backyards.)
The editorial attempts to end on a high note: “If and when the rest of the world starts aggressively pursuing policies to lower demand for oil, then prices for and production of Canadian oil will inevitably fall. Until then, Canada should have no qualms about allowing our industry to prosper and grow, with one major condition: That it heavily curtail its own emissions.” Nobody should ever question the wisdom of the market, and, for our fossil friends, curtailing emissions, with costs paid by government, this must all seem like an invitation to just keep on doing what you have always done – extract dirty products, making a bit of environmental mess here and there, sell those products for high prices, and then sit back while a donkey train of barrows full of money marches into your private vaults. This perspective has so much wrong with it, I can only assume the editors had been suffering hangovers and indigestion after being wined and dined by the fossils.
Am I angry about Canada’s failure to at least take a few steps along the moral high road? Yes. Canada can afford to shift away from fossil fuel extraction and export. Our economy is already well diversified, and many of the skills in the oil and gas sector can be readily applied in other more environmentally appropriate, and economically viable sectors. There is no reason to sit back and follow the herd, when we could lead in the right direction and shut that industry down more quickly.
The IPCC was formed in 1988 and presented its first assessment of climate change in 1990. It is now finishing its sixth assessment. Over the past 32 years, there have been countless conferences, assessments, reports, workshops, agreements and treaties all with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. All this time, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone resolutely upward, and our global emissions per year have also trended upward year by year. There have been dips in the upward march of emissions per year, coupled to economic hiccups of one kind or another, and covid-19 caused a clear dip in emissions in 2020. But global emissions for 2021 were almost back to 2019 levels and 2022 will exceed 2019.
Global emissions of CO2 show an inexorable upward trend since 1940. There is no sign here that efforts to respond to climate change since 1990 have had any effect. World leaders are whistling in the wind, while the fossil fuel sector continues to discover, develop and sell product. Image © Statista.
The pious talk by politicians is simply not doing what it was supposed to do. The fervent belief of so many of us, that we must not risk an economic downturn, or that the market will always make the most effective choices, coupled with the natural desire of fossil fuel producers to continue to extract their product for as long as they can, looking after shareholders’ interests, are potent forces acting to prevent what the world needs to do – leave the rest of the oil, coal and gas in the ground. And Canada’s behavior with respect to the fossil fuel sector is mirrored around the world as the Guardian has just made clear in some telling investigative reporting on what it calls climate bombs. One telling item from their reporting: “The dozen biggest oil companies are on track to spend $103m a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas that cannot be burned if global heating is to be limited to well under 2C.”
If you think I am being extreme, a greenie unable to cope with the real world, let’s finish with a quick update about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This March it bleached again. Along almost its entire length. It was covered even by the CBC although most people around here were preoccupied with Ukraine, covid, and that strange Canadian yearning for freedom!
This image from the recently released Reef Snapshot, Summer 2021-22 revealing the extensive bleaching documented through aerial surveys in March 2022. This is the fourth such event since 2016, and the first to occur during a la Niña phase. (In the el Niña – la Niña cycle, tropical sea surface temperatures across the Pacific oscillate and are usually cooler during la Niña. But global warming has now reached the point that in the west Pacific a warm period even during la Niña, can lead to bleaching. Image © GBRMPA)
There had been bleachings in 2016, 2017, 2020 and now 2022. Prior to 2016, you have to go back 14 years for a similar event in 2002, and so far as is known there was only one other mass bleaching event prior to 2002. This year, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority had to be prodded to release the report documenting that 91% of reefs along its 2300 km length had been bleached to some extent. It is too early to know how extensive mortality will be this time, but it is hoped that many corals will recover. Why did there have to be prodding to see the report? Australia is in the midst of an election and Australian politicians are a lot like Canadian ones it seems – they’d rather keep climate change off the front pages and as theoretical as possible so they can just get on with business as usual. While the Great Barrier Reef dwindles away. Unconscionable!
Am I angry about Canada’s performance? And about Australia’s? Yes, I am angry; angry that powerful vested interests, a peculiar faith in markets, and the idea that the way we live now is the only way humans can live worthwhile lives on this planet are preventing us from making sensible choices for our future. Yes, I am angry.