Canada needs a moratorium on new oilsands projects and pipelines, says a group of Canadian and U.S. academics.
In a comment article in the prominent science journal Nature, they argue that leaders have to stop considering the industry's development project by project and start thinking about the big picture.
"Governments have allowed corporations to profit from one-off policy decisions," the academics write in the article. "The collective result of these decisions is unnecessarily high social, economic and environmental costs."
Governments have become like a smoker who believes that since the next cigarette isn't likely to kill him it's OK to keep lighting up, said economist Mark Jaccard, one of the eight co-authors, from Simon Fraser University.
"I'm going about it the wrong way if I looked at that individual cigarette. I should have looked at all of the cumulative effects of each of the cigarettes I would have smoked and then I might have made a different decision."
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Co-author Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo's Balsillie School of International Affairs said governments need to start putting the pieces together.
"Even the folks who would not agree with us with respect to many of the points we're making would probably agree that the world is changing, that over the next decades there's going to be a move away from carbon-based fuels," he said.
"That's a big job for North America and it shouldn't be approached in piecemeal fashion, with lots of individual decisions that are made in isolation from each other."
Economic and climate models around the world suggest high-carbon fuels such as oilsands-derived crudes can't increase if climate change is to be kept manageable, Jaccard said.
"All of those models show you wouldn't be expanding unconventional oil. As a group at MIT said: 'The niche for the oilsands industry is fairly narrow and mostly involves hoping that climate policy will fail.'"
There's no need to shut the oilsands down — just stop their rapid expansion, Jaccard suggested.
"You don't need to lose jobs in Alberta," he said.
"You may not be able to bring in foreign workers as fast as you were and you may not have inflation as high as you have it and you may not have as much of a boom-and-bust cycle in your economy. But you're not going to see your economy shut down."
The article calls for a price on carbon that would restrict high-emissions projects. It adds that governments need better regulatory tools for studying tradeoffs between development, the environment, social justice and health.
It also calls for a co-operative carbon policy between the United States and Canada.
Homer-Dixon points out carbon price regimes are spreading. China has announced plans for a carbon price by 2015 and the International Energy Agency expects that about one-third of global emissions will be subject to such schemes within a generation.
"Folks don't want to confront the reality here, especially in Alberta, that the world is changing," he said. "These things are proliferating and they're not going away."
Jaccard acknowledges that such policies may not be immediate political winners.
"The more the challenge is global, abstract and distant, the more you're going to need moral leadership."
But Alberta must rise to the challenge, said Homer-Dixon.
"Alberta has done and is doing very well. Just because things are good now and have been in the past doesn't mean that's going to continue indefinitely.
"We need to sit back and take a very close look at what we're doing and think about the longer term in the larger context of the continent. It's not a happy message in some ways for Alberta, but I don't think denial is an option."
The authors of the article also include Wendy Palen, Anne Salomon, Ken Lertzman and Maureen Ryan from Simon Fraser University, Thomas Sisk of Northern Arizona University and Joseph Arvai from the University of Calgary.