By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on May 9, 2018.
Kent A. Peacock
UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE
Many people, from the Dean of Engineering at the University of Alberta to that noted climate scientist Margaret Wente of Toronto’s Globe and Mail, have vented their outrage at the decision of the University of Alberta to award an honorary doctorate of science to David Suzuki.
What was Dr. Suzuki’s crime? He has dared to state the truth that cannot be spoken in Alberta: “the tarsands have to be shut down É we have to be free of fossil fuels long before 2050.”
In what follows I’ll be polite and call them “oil” sands, not “tar” sands, but what Suzuki says is exactly right. There are two reasons for this, energy efficiency and climate change.
Real climate scientists (including Dr. Danny Harvey of the University of Toronto) have done the math. It is completely out of the question for Canada to meet the emission targets that it agreed to at the 2015 Paris climate conference if the oilsands stay in operation. And those emission targets were understood by all governments involved (including ours) to be only a first step; it is well known that they are not by themselves nearly enough to hold the global temperature increase to 2 degrees C, let along the “aspirational goal” of 1.5 degrees that Canada advocated.
The other problem is energy efficiency. The only reason that we are trying to use Alberta’s bitumen deposits as a major energy source is because most of the better-quality oil has been burned up. That’s one of the problems with oil: you burn it, and it is gone. We’ve gone from crude to crud; we’re mining bitumen because there is not much else left. And the problem with using bitumen as a fuel source is that you have to squander a great deal of energy in order to extract and process it into usable form, a lot more proportionally than is needed for most forms of conventional oil. The oilsands are just about the least efficient source of net usable energy on the planet. And because of their emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants (not to mention the devastation of forests, fisheries, and hunting lands), the oilsands are among the dirtiest sources of energy on the planet as well. For these two reasons, they will be among the first to be replaced as new ways and means of generating energy come on line, which they inevitably will.
One of the biggest mistakes we have made in Alberta is to think that we can go on forever using oil royalties to keep our taxes low. Pushing for pipelines is a good way of punting the question of taxes (or higher royalty rates) into the next term of office. >But the oilsands will inevitably be shut down whether anyone likes it or not. I can’t put an exact date on it, but my guess is that any new pipelines, if built, would be obsolete long before they are amortized. If we are wise, we will take the billions that we want to invest in pipelines and instead put that money into no-holds-barred research and development of alternative energy sources – a process which, by the way, will employ a lot of people. Our greatest resource is not oil but human ingenuity, if we are wise enough to put it to work on a large enough scale.
Like Dr. Suzuki, I believe that humanity does in fact have the vision and the sheer guts that it will take to replace fossil fuels before the ice caps collapse (though it is going to be a close-run thing). We are going to have to try a lot of different methods of producing, distributing and storing energy, not all of which will pan out, and it is going to cost a lot of money up front (though it will pay off hugely in the end). But to have a hope of success we have to start by following the example of Dr. Suzuki, and tell the plain truth: the age of oil, coal and gas is coming rapidly to an end. And the most polluting and least energy-efficient means of producing energy from fossil fuels will be the first to go.
Dr. Suzuki richly deserves his degree. And then let’s get to work solving the problems that he has so accurately identified.
Kent Peacock is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lethbridge.
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