Enbridge and the Climate Facts of Life
The climate facts of life are. The increase in temperature the Earth ultimately experiences will be a direct result of the total carbon we emit; the more carbon, the higher the temperature. It makes no difference when or where or how fast this happens. The Earth’s average temperature when we finally reach a zero carbon economy will last a thousand years, and will only recover slightly over the following ten thousand years.
The focus of the climate challenge is not about the greenhouse gases any more, we know the numbers, we know the score, it’s been clear for years now that with a goal (already exceeded) of 350 we best not exceed 450 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We need a net zero carbon economy asap, and by the time we get there we will still need to engineer some carbon removal from the atmosphere if we want a warming bonus of less than 2oC.
Now the focus is on us, how we energize our motivation and align our actions in accord with our best knowledge. The actual amount of CO2 that emerges from a Keystone XL or Northern Gateway pipeline (each about 500,000 barrels oil/day = to 2 billion tonnes of carbon (GtC) per 100yrs) constitutes a climatically significant, but not in itself catastrophic ‘’. The greater significance is in the fact that, given what we know, we might actually choose to continue to emit ever more carbon, while certain of its terrible costs.
Globally, if we ignore inevitable positive climate feedback effects from present warming (like methane release from a warming Arctic, or massive wildfires), we can emit about a thousand GtC and retain a 50% probability that mean global warming will reach about 2oC above pre-industrial values. We have emitted about half of this already and at present rates would release the rest in just 50 years. Clearly we should aim lower; 50:50 is not good odds considering the downside. Not to mention that thehas reported the “impacts associated with 2oC have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2oC now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change” - and this is what consider the upside!
What carbon is left in the ground to contribute to the remaining 500 Gt ‘allowance’? Using, 139 GtC from oil; 100 GtC from natural gas. This is the easy stuff to get at, profitable too, so we will likely use it all up leaving 261 Gt of our 500 Gt ‘ration’ to source from elsewhere – primarily tar sands and coal. The total carbon in the Athabasca tar sands is 230 GtC, so if we could recover it all it would complete our allowance. We won’t get it all, despite some deposits deemed 70% recoverable. Then there is coal, in total estimated to hold 634 GtC, with unknown amounts to discover. We have more than enough fuel carbon for our ‘permissible’ activity, and then some, enough to push the temperature up by 4 degrees and more as the feedbacks kick in with greater certainty. This would be back to the Mesozoic in terms of environmental conditions. Not where we evolved and not pleasant for us!
The elephant in this particular room is the lurking realization that economic growth as we have known it for a couple of centuries is slipping off the table, for reasons concerning the impossible expansion of debt, cumulative environmental impacts and looming limitations in resources (). Beneath the reflexive yearning for economic recovery lies the stark recognition that continuous growth subsidized by debt and energized by hydrocarbons cannot continue at historic rates. The implication is of a very different future, and this is where both creative opportunity and fear of loss and change intersect, often with high levels of political potency. argues that in the U.S. the ultra-conservatives understand this implication better than anyone, and their desire for things to remain as they are is powerful enough to motivate climate science denial and political intervention blocking adaptation to climate impacts like sea level rise.
In its 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that the world will headed for irreversible climate change in five years if the planned construction of fossil fuel driven infrastructure is not rapidly changed. This clearly includes oil and gas pipelines. The commitment to emissions over the lifetime of these technologies will, by 2017, cause us to lose forever the chance to avoid dangerous climate change. The IEA considers the ‘lock-in’ effect as “the single most important factor increasing the danger of runaway climate change.” Only successfully implemented policy to change the fossil fuel infrastructure will avoid this singular disaster. We are on notice.