Well, it’s official now: “Government of Canada Accepts Recommendation to Impose 209 Conditions on Northern Gateway Proposal” (Government of Canada Press Release), which of course means the government conditionally approves the project. In a year or so, there will no doubt be a similar government approval of Kinder Morgan’s expansion of the TransMountain Pipeline. Meanwhile our own premier is busy pressure-selling us liquefied natural gas and it’s accompanying fracking to lead us all to prosperity.
The problem with these projects is not so much the danger of oil spills, gas-explosions, or poisoned water wells – although those dangers are very significant – but the much larger problem of climate change. Every piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that is newly built – pipeline, refinery, LNG plant, triple-hulled super tanker, etc. – will necessitate enough use to pay for its construction. That means that much more fossil fuel will have to be mined, shipped and burned before the pipeline (etc.) can be retired. That will probably take 20 years or more for each project. (The original TransMountain Pipeline is nearly 70 years old and the owners don’t seem to be ready to let it die yet).
The thing is that we don’t have 20 years to start a decline in the use of fossil fuel. We have to start immediately. This is why:
Globally, we are currently at about 0.8°C above the average temperature from 1900. The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) level is about 400 parts per million (PPM), compared with 280 PPM at 1900. CO2 is the primary gas that’s causing the increased greenhouse effect. If we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would notnoticeably decline. It would decline, but very slowly. To reach pre-industrial levels will take centuries. We have not yet reached the “equilibrium warming” that the current 400 PPM will eventually give us. It’s already in the pipe: we’re committed through physics. The extra CO2 traps more heat than radiates back out of the atmosphere. The incoming radiation (heat) will balance with outgoing radiation when we have reached the equilibrium point. Then it stops warming and stays relatively constant (ignoring feedback loops and geographical discrepancies). The equilibrium warming for our current 400 PPM CO2 is 1.6°C – 2C°, which we will probably hit at about 2050. Two degrees is significant, because it is thought by many scientists to be the limit of what we can handle as a civilization and it is what all the governments of the world agreed to as a limit, at the Copenhagen Accord (even the Harper Government).
Obviously, we will have to adapt and probably spend a lot of money and effort to do so, even to handle 2°C.
But the real kicker is if we don’t move away from fossil fuels we’re heading for 4°C or more warming by 2100. That number just keeps going up in time past 2100 as long as we stay with business as usual. Those are the predictions from the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change — you know that UN sponsored organization that is a conspiracy of 95% of the world’s climate scientists to get research grants). Sea level is predicted to rise about a meter. Ocean acidification (aka “global warming’s evil twin”) will increase, due to the higher levels of CO2, and will be catastrophic for coral reefs and other shelled animals. It is already causing failures in oyster farms, due to inability to form shells in the more acidic seawater.
Obviously, we have to do something to change direction. Building more pipelines is clearly not the answer. The issue is not how many pipeline or LNG jobs we can create in the next couple of years, but whether we can pass on a habitable planet to our grandchildren.