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What Will Canada's Climate Legacy Be?

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On the last day of the United Nations climate change conference in Durban, South Africa last December, Canada announced that it had granted approval for the multi-billion dollar Joslyn tar sands mine. Coming shortly before Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the announcement said more about Canada's climate legacy than anyone at that summit could have known.

The only strong target, in regards to climate change, that even Canada has agreed to is the upper limit of warming that we can allow on our planet be kept below two degrees Celsius. Right now we are living in a world that is nearly one degree warmer than the average over the last 100 years. In this one-degree reality we have seen increasing incidents of drought, wildfires, severe storms and the sort of unpredictable extreme weather that ripped from the Caribbean to the Rockaways all the way to Toronto with Hurricane Sandy.

The problem is that according to the best science we have, to stay under that two-degree limit we only have room left in our atmosphere for roughly 565 gigatonnes of carbon emissions, while big oil, gas and coal are planning to burn over five times that amount. This would put us on course for at least four degrees of warming, and impacts beyond what we can even model and comprehend, let alone what our societies can adapt to.

This is where Canada comes in.

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Before last year's climate summit, Environment Minister Peter Kent went on record that Canada's position on the summit was to take no action that would curtail the growth of the tar sands. Adding credence to the argument that Canada was negotiating to protect the oil patch, an Access to Information request revealed in April that Canada had vetted its negotiating position, along with a number of other key foreign policy positions related to tar sands projects, through industry representatives. Industry called it an "elegant" approach.

Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world's foremost research and policy institute on energy issues, paints a sobering picture of what this cozy relationship means for the planet.

According to the IEA tar sands production would need to be capped at a maximum of 3.3 million barrels per day. Right now, production is at 2.28 million barrels per day, with approved projects, projects under regulatory review -- like the Shell's Jackpine and Pierre River mines -- and projects under construction set to bring production to 7.1 million barrels per day, over twice the climate limit.

According to IEA scenarios, even at only 4.6 million barrels per day with business as usual policies, we are set for over four degrees of warming. While Canada has repeatedly stated its commitment to the Copenhagen Accord and its two-degree target, the math doesn't add up.

If the past year of domestic policy cuts to environmental monitoring and assessment projects is anything to go on, it is unlikely that this cozy pact between the tar sands and policy decision is going to break in Doha. The good news is that this climate crashing expansion is currently being fought across Canada, the United States and around the globe.

Around 100,000 barrels per day of immediate expansion are being stopped by constitutional challenges to the Shell Jackpine project by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Community mobilization in BC is putting upwards of 1 million bpd worth of potential expansion export capacity in question from the Kinder Morgan and Northern Gateway projects. The Keystone XL mobilization across the United States has repeatedly thwarted over 800,000 bpd more of pipeline capacity, along with more and more questions being raised about the 300,000 bpd of the Line 9/Trailbreaker reversal project.

We are living in a world that is nearly a degree warmer than the average over the past 100 years. The realities of a one-degree world are harsh: more unpredictable weather, increasing drought and fluctuations in growing seasons, a rapidly melting arctic, flooding and storms that destroy homes and displace people. Canada has taken a global position to ensure that emissions grow far and above the climate limit, a limit that they were a part of setting in 2009.

So what is going to be our climate legacy? Right now were on well on path for global pariah, heads too buried in the tar sands to see the coming storms.