Last week, two important things happened in the world of climate change. On Thursday, TransCanada filed its full project proposal to build the largest tar sands pipeline ever, the 1.1 million barrel per day Energy East project. Then on Sunday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a new synthesis report. The IPCC report repeats much of what we already know, that climate change is "unequivocal," that we are causing it and that without drastic action we're on track for dangerous levels of warming. What's new in this report is that the IPCC lays out a clear and necessary choice -- either we phase out fossil fuels or face "severe, pervasive and irreversible" damage.
The filing of the Energy East project this week is a perfect example of this choice and is slated to become the "climate test" for Canadian politicians. Energy East is the largest tar sands pipeline ever proposed, with a climate impact the same as over 7 million cars and the potential to facilitate a 40 per cent expansion of tar sands development, Canada's fastest growing source of climate pollution. Building this pipeline would be locking in decades of expansion of unconventional fossil fuel development at exactly the moment when we're being told to go the other direction.
Unfortunately, right now this is also a climate test that every political party in Canada is failing. Most Canadian politicians remained silent in the wake of Energy East's filing, a silence that was especially conspicuous for self-styled climate leaders in the NDP, Green and Liberal parties. A press release from the NDP in response to the filing (the only party to issue a response) gave no mention of climate change, instead issuing a vague commitment to "environmental protection" and a "review that takes into account the full environmental, social and economic impact of the proposal." The Liberals and Greens, although silent this week, have expressed similarly obtuse sentiments, seeming to purposely evade the climate question.
The reality is that neither environmental protection, nor a comprehensive review of a pipeline of this magnitude can be achieved without taking climate change into account. With falling oil prices and the increasing risk of carbon bubbles and stranded assets in Canada's oil patch, the climate question and the economic feasibility of Energy East are colliding. Economist Andrew Leach wrote in a piece earlier this year that:
"Beyond any doubt, either the National Energy Board must address whether proposed pipelines would still be needed under a scenario in which Canada meets its international commitments on emissions, or the government must instruct the National Energy Board that it has no intention to meet these targets so that the board may credibly exclude them from its analysis."
In other words, when we review pipelines, or when politicians support them without a consideration of the climate impacts, it's not only short-sighted and a failure of climate leadership, it's also leaving out a key piece of the economic equation.
When the IPCC report was published this week, UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon said that "all we need is the will to change," and Energy East is going to be a test of whether or not Canadian politicians posses that well. All three of Canada's opposition parties having expressed theoretical support for an west-east pipeline.
Now, they are faced with the reality that their support for Energy East will undermine any climate commitments they try to make. It will also place them at odds with an environmental movement who they all want to court in the 2015 election, especially in the Quebec battlegrounds where dozens of community groups have organized to oppose Energy East. Now, with over 50,000 messages already sent to the National Energy Board demanding a climate review of Energy East, and the NEB mired in lawsuits for refusing to consider climate in the review of past pipelines, it's clear that this issue is only going to get bigger, and the climate test for politicians more real.
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