Should Canada sell its tar sands oil to China? An article by Winnie Hwo, Climate Change and Clean Energy Campaigner

This article was originally posted on the David Suzuki Foundation web site so  readers be warned – you know where this article is going with this – I think Winnie brings up some interesting points. Find out more about climate change issues here.

Photo: Should Canada sell its tar sands oil to China? It is a decision Canadians need to make.

Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Credit: kk+ via Flickr)

Will selling tar sands oil to China help that country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? Dr. Wenran Jiang argues it will. In a talk at UBC titled “Putting Environment into the Canada-China Energy Equation”, Dr. Jiang said China burns lots of coal and burning coal creates high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. If Canada sells more tar sands bitumen to China, he said, we can help China lower its GHG emissions because burning oil creates fewer emissions than burning coal.

Dr. Jiang — who is the MacTaggart Chair at the University of Alberta, a senior adviser to the Alberta government and a frequent contributor to the Financial Post and CBC — gave his 90-minute presentation as the first of the China in Global Perspective: The Energy-Sustainability Nexus series hosted by the Institute of Asian Research, with Carbon Talks, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and the Liu Centre for Global Issues.

Since 2006, China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s top overall greenhouse gas emitter. Although China’s current per capita GHG emissions are 6.8 tonnes per year, lower than the U.S.’s 16.9 tonnes and Canada’s 16.15 tonnes a year, at the existing rate of industrial and domestic growth in China, per capita GHG emissions could surpass those of the U.S. by 2017. Xie Zhenhua, vice chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said last year that this is not an option.

China’s GHG emissions and addiction to coal need to be reined in. China gets 70 per cent of its energy from coal, and nine per cent from renewable sources including wind, solar, hydro and nuclear. Four per cent is from natural gas and 15 per cent from petroleum, mainly from Africa and the Middle East.

As a Chinese Canadian, I may be expected to cheer for a plan that seemingly helps our economy while lowering China’s GHG emissions. But I don’t!

According to Dr. Jiang’s presentation, China’s “explosive” industrial growth, the expansion of the middle class and increasing urbanization will force an ever-expanding demand for fossil fuels. However, China’s main fossil fuel — coal — will lead to even more environmental degradation and GHG emissions. Dr. Jiang said China is now the largest auto consumer in the world, that 70 per cent of China’s water is polluted, that 90 per cent of global electronic waste is dumped in southern China, not to mention the burning of coal and other fossil fuels in China which made up 90 per cent of China’s fuel source. Beijing has become the poster boy for poor air quality capitals of the world. The total sum of China’s pollution, according to Dr. Jiang, is costing the Chinese economy $200 billion US a year.

To enhance energy security, Dr. Jiang said, China should buy Canadian oil, because 80 per cent of China’s petroleum is currently imported from politically and socially unstable countries in Africa, the Middle East and South America. Dr. Jiang emphasized that China spends $230 billion a year on overall foreign purchases and is expected to spend $500 billion by 2015. Selling Alberta tar sands bitumen to China would allow Canada to take advantage of this vast investment opportunity. But the argument is flawed.

Despite being the world’s number one GHG emitter, China introduced its National Climate Change Program in 2007. The program was followed by the 2008 white paper, China’s Actions and Policies on Climate Change. Although China is still burning way too much fossil fuel, it is also the top renewable energy investor in the world.

According to renowned climate campaigner Bill McKibben, 250-million Chinese are heating their water with solar panels. The International Solar Energy Society also indicated that solar panels are widely used by farmers in rural China. The country is expected to expand its use of renewables from nine per cent of national energy consumption to 15 per cent by 2020. This year, China’s highest GHG-emitting province, Guangdong, has also set a target to increase its share of non-fossil fuel to 20 per cent of total energy consumption by 2015.

As for China’s rising demand for automobiles, Dr. Jiang’s presentation has omitted a key development in the nation’s domestic scene. As more and more Chinese switch from bicycles to vehicles, Chinese companies and the central government are also investing more in electric cars. China has already committed $15 billion to new vehicle technology research and development over the next eight years, leading to its target of becoming the world’s largest electric auto market by 2020. What do all of the above developments mean for Canadian oil sands? It would only highlight the lack of competitiveness of our tar sands as the demand for fossil fuel will prove obsolete in the near future.

As for Canada, we are still missing a Climate Accountability Act which means we cannot even commit to reducing our GHG emission by 80% in 2050. We have no plans to shift the nation to an energy future based more on renewables than fossil fuels and we have no plans that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels experts agree are required to avoid dangerous climate change. Instead, our young people can only watch as the adults sell their future to maintain and pay for an unsustainable present. As Canada pulls out of the Kyoto Protocol, we must endure increasing GHG emissions and more environmental disasters because of the prospect of building a twin pipeline to carry our bitumen from Alberta to Asia on supertankers, through one of the most ecologically pristine areas in the world. This is not a future I am willing to endure, neither am I willing to leave for my kid.

Canada can help China to lower its GHG emissions. But the answer does not lie in feeding China more fossil fuel. The solution is for the two nations to help each other in speeding up a renewable energy future. Instead of taking advantage of China’s multi-billion dollar investment in dirty oil and coal, Canada should play the role of a loyal friend that Dr. Norman Bethune once was to China and the Chinese people. Canadians can help China to move to a clean energy future from which both nations can benefit.

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