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8 May 2017

There’s one area in which Justin Trudeau is no progressive

The Canadian golden boy has a seriously dirty track record on tar sands. 

By Molly Scott Cato

Canada’s golden boy, Justin Trudeau, promised to rebrand Canada as climate progressive. When signing the Paris Agreement last year he said “climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will” and pledged Canada would reduce carbon emissions 30 per cent by 2030.

Fast forward a year, and it is clear that the man who has charmed many with his boyish good looks and liberal attitudes has failed this climate change test. Indeed, his environmentally destructive actions means he should be sent to the naughty step.

Last November Trudeau approved two pipelines that will pump nearly a million barrels of tar sands crude oil per day over the next decade from Alberta to global markets. That coincides with the same timeline under which Canada is supposed to peak and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their pledges to the Paris agreement.

A third project is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Campaigners rejoiced when Barack Obama finally rejected the plans for a 1,180 mile pipeline between Canada and refineries on the Texas coast. But an executive order by President Donald Trump has resurrected the project.

Tar sands oil is seriously dirty stuff and has a massive impact on the environment. The carbon emissions related to exploiting this crudest form of oil are two to four times higher than conventional oil, while the estimated tar sands reserves contain enough CO2 to blow half the remaining carbon budget before we reach two degrees of warming.

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But it’s not just the climate impacts. Tar sand deposits cover approximately 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta, an area greater than the size of England, and the toxic sludge created by the mining process seeps into natural water ways contaminating fish and other wildlife. Tar sands operations also poison the air by releasing large volumes of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere.

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Trudeau’s response to all this is to claim there is no conflict between future growth in exploiting tar oil sands and tackling climate change. Such a claim shows he has definitely failed the intelligence test he set himself when signing up to the Paris Agreement. Even his own government rejects such a claim.

A recent report by a federal agency tasked with reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions has concluded that Canada’s emissions will most likely increase rather than decrease between now and 2030 thanks to Alberta’s tar sands. So despite Trudeau’s stated ambitions to curtail emissions the country will fail to achieve targets agreed under the Paris agreement.

Applauded for distancing himself from Trump over his attitude to feminism, immigration and Muslims, Trudeau has quickly found something to unite two apparently incompatible ideologies. Where there’s a chance to get your hands dirty with lucrative tar sands deals, liberal values can take a back seat. Indeed, at two official meetings with Trump, Trudeau pressed not for the rights of women, immigrants or Muslims, but pledged instead Canada’s steadfast support for the $8-billion Keystone XL project.

“We know our transition off fossil fuels is going to take a long time,” Trudeau has said. Having failed the intelligence part of the test he set himself when signing up to the Paris agreement, he looks set also to fail the test on compassion and resolve too.

2016 was the warmest year on record and 16 of the 17 hottest years have now occurred this century. Scientists warn that the impacts of climate change on people are coming sooner and with more ferocity than expected. We simply don’t have “a long time” to kick our fossil fuel habit; we must leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground, especially such damaging sources as tar sands.

Thankfully, while Trudeau seems to be following the will of oil corporations, others are willing us towards a brighter future. Fossil fuel divestment is growing as young and old alike pressure their universities and pension funds to rein back investment in coal, oil and gas. With the price of wind and solar tumbling, renewable energy generation is also mushrooming. So whatever dirty deals President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau strike up, the energy transition is unstoppable.

It is this rapid transition that gives us hope that we can leave a safe and secure planet for future generations rather than one where climate instability drives people from their homes and destroys their livelihoods. That transition, Mr Trudeau, is surely an act of compassion.