It's not easy to tell the truth -- particularly when people don't want to hear it. Linda McQuaig caused something of a political firestorm awhile back for suggesting that -- if we're really serious about climate change -- most of the black goo in northern Alberta will have to stay in the ground. Yonatan Strauch and Thomas Homer-Dixon write that the numbers back up McQuaig:
The math says that having a safe climate requires leaving huge oil reserves in the ground. To avert warming so catastrophic we can’t adapt to it – generally thought to be about 2 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures – the atmosphere can absorb only so much carbon.
This is known as the global carbon budget. According to the International Energy Agency’s 450 scenario, staying within this budget requires more than half of fossil fuel reserves to remain unburned. Most importantly for Canada, even with sharp limits on coal emissions world oil consumption soon peaks below 100 million barrels per day – not far above current levels of consumption – and then declines to around 80 mb/d in 2035. Stephen Harper has bet the Canadian economy on the oil sands. But, even as he was placing that bet, the action at the tables was changing.
Consider what has happened to coal:
Ten years ago, coal was a solid investment. Consumption was growing fast; meanwhile, solar and wind power were relatively expensive. Today, investment banks like Citigroup and HSBC warn the coal industry is in permanent decline, while noting that renewables are increasingly competitive. Of course, in the U.S. cheap natural gas from fracking has played a big part in coal’s shifting fortunes. But the rapidly falling cost of renewables has been important too.
The same fate could await oil:
What’s happening to coal could easily happen to oil. Global demand could soften far sooner than currently seems possible, thanks to a combination of carbon policy, increased vehicle and infrastructure efficiency, and electric vehicle growth driven by plummeting battery costs. This is an energy innovation scenario we should be betting on, not against.
But Harper -- and Canadians in general -- won't talk about what's happening. They refuse to look at the math:
It’s no wonder many Canadians don’t want to discuss these hard numbers. For Canada to become a fossil-fuel “energy superpower” the world has to blow its carbon budget. The price of oil has to stay above $80 a barrel long enough to justify long-term investments in oilsands infrastructure. A modest carbon tax could buy us some social license. And for a few short and shameful decades, Canada could profit from climate destruction.
But this alternative scenario seems increasingly unlikely. In a world evermore worried about climate catastrophe, Canada is probably going to find it ever harder to expand the oilsands. As global markets for oil shrink, the highest-cost highest-carbon oil will be left in the ground first—and that’s our oil. This will make the current oil down-turn look like a walk in the park.
What's happening in Alberta these days is a canary in the coal mine. And coal mines are on the way out.