Oilsands and airplanes, pots and kettles: are climate agreements a waste of time?

“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations [by reducing greenhouse gas pollution], I will.” Thus spake the U.S. president on February 12 of this year, in his 2013 state of the union speech. Only 77 days earlier, he had signed a bill protecting U.S. airlines from paying a carbon dioxide (CO2) emission fee for flying in European Union airspace. According to a Pew Center report, U.S. commercial airlines dumped around 150 million metric tons of CO2 into the air in 2005; that amount has been fairly constant since 1990 (see Table 1 on page 5). This is a rather glaring disconnect. The president blocked a climate action measure, and less than three months later told the world he wanted exactly those kinds of measures.

Unfortunately the disconnect went unmentioned in the mainstream press.

What puts more CO2 into the air, civil aviation or the Canadian oilsands? The former, by far. In view of this, it is remarkable that so much of the world’s attention has focused on the oilsands, while efforts to curb aviation CO2 emissions are likely to go nowhere.

This is an important point, especially apropos of the current intense global PR campaign against oil from Canada’s oil sands. Oil sands CO2 emissions in 2011 were roughly 62 million metric tons. So we have the U.S. president endlessly delaying, for allegedly environmental reasons, a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian oilsands crude to refineries in the U.S.. Meanwhile, he blocks an EU proposal that addresses an activity that puts nearly three times as much CO2 into the air.

Why do Canada’s oilsands get so much negative press? Because it is easy in this day and age to create a pop culture meme. All you need is a consensus among seemingly disparate and non-interested groups: when these groups sing from the same songbook, voila. Canada’s oilsands are indeed vilified by seemingly disparate groups. Every mainstream environmental lobby group in the world has glommed onto the oilsands as an environmental disaster. How could such a consensus be wrong?

Well, I just gave numbers, from public sources, that show that the anti-oilsands opposition is simply out of proportion to the actual amount of CO2—62 million tons in 2011—emitted by oilsands operators. To repeat, the U.S. president, whom the environmental groups celebrate, blocked a move that would put a price on airline CO2 emissions in the EU, which represent about 138 million tons, or 3 percent of the EU’s total 4.6 billion tons per year.

If the environmental lobby were truly concerned about reducing greenhouse gases like CO2, you would think that they would focus on the real problems, as represented by the bigger numbers. Seems logical, doesn’t it. But that is of course not how it works. The environmental lobby has slid into perfect uselessness over the past number of decades. This is why we have the spectacle today of environmental lobbies focusing on a 62 million ton problem while ignoring one three times as big. Could that be because they love to fly, in kerosene-powered airplanes, to international climate conferences in exotic remote locations?

It is also why we have the spectacle of the environmental lobby applauding Germany’s decision to replace its nuclear generating fleet with coal-fired plants.

Canada’s government has been fighting a multi-front war to get oilsands crude into lucrative markets in North America and abroad. A recent front opened in the EU, which has threatened to label oilsands crude as “dirty.” Canada says it will fight the European Commission, the bureaucratic arm of the European government and the organization that proposed the oilsands move, in front of the World Trade Organization. I hope Canada brings up the German nuclear phaseout as an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

And I also hope Canada brings up the example of Ontario’s massive electricity-sector CO2 emission reductions since 2003. As I have pointed out, Ontario electricity sector CO2 was 16 million tons last year; it was 43 million tons in 2003. That massive reduction was almost entirely due to the addition of nuclear generation into the provincial electricity mix. See Tables 1 and 2 on the left-hand sidebar of this blog to see the importance of nuclear power in Ontario electricity, and its importance as a zero-CO2 generation source. Every hour you can see the effect of the addition of nuclear generation capacity since 2003; Item 1 on the upper right shows how much CO2 would have been dumped into the air had there been no nuclear fleet. It is an hourly figure.

Ontario, a sub-jurisdiction of Canada, is showing the world how it’s done. More people, including those at the WTO who might hear a Canadian complaint against the EC about the oilsands, need to know about this.

Another thing to follow: the EU plan to include aviation CO2 emissions in the Emission Trading Scheme (which the U.S. president blocked in the bill he signed in late November 2012) is being discussed at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The EU agreed a year ago—around the time of the U.S. bill—to let the ICAO settle the issue. That is supposed to happen by October 4 2013.

According to a Reuters article, there is no progress being made on the issue at the ICAO. So the question is, will the EU press ahead with including aviation emissions under the ETS?

If so, the world will be treated to yet another incongruous spectacle of environmental posturing: this time the spectacle of the two biggest economic blocs on earth, which also happen to be the biggest talkers of the climate change talk, go toe to toe in a trade war over greenhouse gas emissions.

The WTO may have its hands full over the next while.

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