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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

James Hansen at U.K. Environmental Audit Committee hearing, May 16, 2013


Q5, Caroline Lucas: Thank you. Yesterday there were leaked papers-which I am sure you have probably seen -- which appear to show that the UK is rejecting an EU proposal to classify oil from tar sands as highly polluting through the Fuel Quality Directive. That suggests that the UK is happy to see European countries import carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Canada, essentially by creating a market for it here. What are your views on that position, in terms of the extent to which it is compatible with a stated aim and a legal requirement in the UK to keep temperature warming to below 2 °C?
Professor Hansen: I would like to make clear why this is extremely important. It is based on very fundamental physics of the climate system, which there is absolutely no dispute about. We understand what we call the carbon cycle very well. When we burn fossil fuels and put the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that carbon dioxide will stay in the surface climate system for millennia. That is the problem.
We know, mainly from the history of the earth, how sensitive the climate system is to changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the surface climate system. We have records over hundreds of millions of years of how the climate has changed over time and in response to changes in the boundary conditions, which include the atmospheric composition and the surface properties of the planet. That is our best measure of how sensitive the climate system is when you give it time to respond. That is where we come up with the limits on how much we can put into the atmosphere without guaranteeing huge impacts.
When we look at how much carbon there is in the conventional fossil fuels-that means oil, gas and coal-we realise that we cannot burn all those fossil fuels without going way beyond what we have agreed is a dangerous limit. In fact, if we burned all fossil fuels, we would head the planet back to the ice-free state, with sea levels 70 metres higher, 250 feet higher. We realised that we cannot do that.
When we dealt only with conventional fossil fuels, the problem was potentially solvable because, if we would leave most of the coal in the ground, or capture the CO2 when we burn the coal and put it back in the ground, then it was solvable because the conventional oil and gas is finite. There was some hope that, with international agreements, if we began to put a price on carbon, which would move the world toward alternative sources of electricity rather than coal, it was a solvable problem.
Here, however, in addition to these conventional fossil fuels, we have these unconventional oils-tar sands, tar shale, fracking for gas-and the potential amount of carbon in these unconventional oils is huge. If we introduce the tar shale and tar sands as a source and exploit those resources to a significant extent, then the problem becomes unsolvable. We know that you can get conventional oil, which is available in places like Saudi Arabia and Russia, out of the ground for several dollars a barrel. There is no way that we can tell Saudi Arabia, “Don’t sell that oil”, or tell Russia, “You’re not allowed to sell that oil”, so we know we are going to get more out of these conventional sources. If we also introduce the unconventional ones then there is no solution other than geo-engineering, which is a terrible fate to will to our children.
So we cannot pretend that we don’t know the consequences of digging into these unconventional fossil fuels that, frankly, I had always assumed the world would be smart enough to leave in the ground, because they are more carbon-intensive. The amount of energy you get per unit of carbon is less, and you get all these extra pollutants. It is a very dirty process getting those tar sands out of the ground. You are polluting that region tremendously.
All that has been asked for in this fuel standard is to at least label it and say that we are getting more carbon per unit of energy, and yet some countries are afraid to do that. They are putting a burden on their children and future generations for the sake of what, slightly better relations with a particular party in Canada? It is absolutely crazy, the dynamics that are going on here. It is hard to understand how we cannot get countries to understand what the consequences of that are and what they are trading off.

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