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Stephen Harper Forgets His Own Pledge to End Fossil Fuel Use

08/13/2015 12:15 EDT | Updated 08/13/2016 05:59 EDT
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A pumpjack on the prairie.

If the recent frufrah over NDP candidate Linda McQuaig's comment that "a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground" is indicative of anything, it's that Canada's election cycle is in full spin. May all reasonableness and sensible dialogue and accountability be damned.

Perhaps that's the blunt and singular reason behind the Conservative Party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's outrage at McQuaig's entirely non-contentious assertion that, because of our international commitments to curtail global climate change, Canada won't exploit the entirety of its oil reserves.

Harper accused the NDP of having a "not-so hidden agenda," saying the party "is consistently against the development of our resources and our economy."

"That's why they...would wreck this economy if they ever got in, and why they must never get into power in this country."

But Harper's reaction seems conspicuously overwrought given the Prime Minister's own pledge, along with the other G7 nations, to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2100.

At the time of signing -- a whole two months ago -- Harper said the plan would "require a transformation in our energy sectors."

He added: "Nobody's going to start to shut down their industries or turn off the lights. We've simply got to find a way to create lower-carbon emitting sources of energy -- and that work is ongoing."

Harper may have been diplomatically coerced into signing the G7 leader's declaration. After all, an inside source did come forward at the time to say Canada and Japan were "the most concerned" about the agreement and according to federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May Canada played a role in delaying the pledge's original 2050 target date. At the very least, the declaration runs contrary to the Prime Minister's own energy superpower ambitions.

Yet the decarbonization pledge wasn't exactly out of left field, either.

Several major institutions had already come forward to raise concern about the risk of stranded assets in a carbon-constrained world.

Already in 2012 the International Energy Agency (which Bloomberg concedes "is no den of Greenpeace radicals") concluded that to stay within the 2 degrees Celsius limit for global temperature rise, two-thirds of the world's known fossil fuels must remain underground.

Then in the fall of 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its calculations on the world's "carbon budget" and warned more than half of the global carbon dioxide allowance had already been used up. The scientific body warned "substantial and sustained" reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were immediate necessary to avoid passing that 2 degree Celsius target.

In 2013 a study led by Lord Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics along with Carbon Tracker identified trillions of dollars dangerously reliant on inflated fossil fuel reserves. The so-called "carbon bubble" could trigger a major economic crisis, the report warned.

In 2014 the Bank of England warned insurance companies of the risk of potentially worthless fossil fuel investments, after its head Mark Carney cautioned the "vast majority of [fossil fuel] reserves are unburnable."

Around the same time President Barak Obama bluntly stated: "We're not going to be able to burn it all."

"Well, science is science," the president said. "And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that's in the ground right now, that the planet's going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire."

A study published in the journal Nature in early 2015 took the stranded assets research further and identified those high-cost, high-carbon fossil fuel reserves that should remain unused given a global carbon budget. The study concluded production in Canada's oilsands should drop to "negligible" levels by 2020 to remain within that 2 degree Celsius target.

That report was followed by a call to divest from fossil fuels from World Bank president Jim Yong Kim and reports from HSBC, Citibank and Standard & Poor, some of the world's major financiers, on the financial risk of unburnable fossil fuels.

More recently a group of prominent scientists publicly called for a stop to further growth in Canada's oilsands. The group argued adding new development in the oilsands goes against the recommendations of the scientific community when it comes to climate, ecosystems, species protection and indigenous rights.

So it appears on the issue of decarbonization, the Prime Minister doesn't agree with anybody. Not even, erm, himself.

Keith Stewart, Greenpeace energy and climate campaigner, and part-time faculty member at the University of Toronto where he teaches a course on energy and the environment, suggests this comes down to Canada's "disconnect."

"We want to do something on climate change but the minute you look at what that means, people back away and say not that, not that," Stewart said on the CBC's The Current.

"There's a fundamental dishonesty here, to tell the world Canada will play its role on climate change and then tell Canadians there will be absolutely no limit on the expansion of the [oilsands] sector," he said.

"Nobody is talking about shutting it down tomorrow. This is about how much is it going to expand, what are we going to do over time and how are we going to phase this out over the coming decades because that is what Canada has committed to."

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