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For Africa's Sake, Trudeau Should Keep His Hands Off Alberta Oil

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Today the lives of over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk due to a drought at least partly caused by climate change.

A study by Britain's Met Office concluded that human-induced climate disturbances sparked a famine in Somalia in 2011 in which over 50,000 died. For its part, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimated in 2012 that climate change was responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.


To mitigate this downward spiral, radical action is needed. Instead, here is what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told oil company executives gathered in Houston earlier this month: "No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there."

But that's precisely what should happen to Canada's tar sands, as Trudeau alluded to when campaigning for the votes of those concerned about climate change. Most of the world's fossil fuels need to be left untouched to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change and Canadian oil ought to be front of the "keep it in the ground" line for a combination of ecological and equity reasons. It takes significantly more energy to extract tar sands oil than conventional crude. The tremendous amount of energy required to bring the oily sand to the surface and separate out a useful product emits a great deal of carbon dioxide.

Found in a wealthy, heavy emitting country, the tar sands are a carbon bomb that needs to be defused.

The narrow ecological argument for phasing out tar sands production is powerful. It's bolstered by international equity considerations. Canada's large current and accumulated carbon footprint is another reason to keep this country's oil in the soil.

Per capita emissions in many African countries amount to barely one per cent of Canada's rate. In Uganda, Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda and Mozambique, per capita emissions comprise less than 1/150th of Canada's average. In Tanzania, Madagascar, Comoros, the Gambia, Liberia and Zambia, per capita emissions are less than 1/80th Canada's average.

Even more startling is the historical imbalance among nations in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a September 2009 Guardian comparison, Canada released 23,669 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 1900 and 2004, while Afghanistan released 77 million metric tons; Chad, 7 million metric tons; Morocco, 812 million metric tons; and Egypt, 3,079 million metric tons.

trudeau houston
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a roundtable discussion at the 2017 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, on March 9, 2017. (Photo: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Canada's contribution to global warming over this period was more than the combined total of every sub-Saharan African country. While the historical data is troubling, forward-looking comparisons are equally stark. If plans to nearly double tar sands production proceed, by 2030 Alberta's project will emit as much carbon as most sub-Saharan African countries combined.

A sense of "carbon equity" requires that Canadian oil remain untouched. So does economic justice. Canada is a wealthy country that had a functioning health-care, pension and education system prior to significant tar sands extraction, which began at the turn of the century. In fact, Canada had one of the highest living standards in the world before beginning to extract sizable quantities of tar sands.

The wealthiest countries should be the first to leave fossil fuel wealth in the ground. Only a sociopath would suggest the Congo, Haiti or Bangladesh stop extracting fossil fuels before Canada does.

Found in a wealthy, heavy emitting country, the tar sands are a carbon bomb that needs to be defused. Extracting Canada's 173 billion barrels will drive ever-greater numbers of the planet's most vulnerable over the edge.

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