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Canada Is Talking Tough on Climate But Don’t Expect the Oil Sands to Shut Down

Alberta's Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the federal government and fellow provinces understand "Alberta is an energy producer and will remain so for the foreseeable future."
Canadians staged a 'retirement party' for the oil sands on Wednesday. Image by Ashley Renders

Canada made a big commitment at the COP21 that should spell disaster for the oil sands.

Last week, the country's environment and climate change minister endorsed a 1.5-degree global warming ceiling — noticeably tougher than the two-degree target most nations are striving for, and which the United Nations has already said they won't meet.

While Canada is being applauded for its ambition, no one knows what this will look like on the ground. The federal government plans to sit down with the provinces, territories and First Nations groups in the 90 days following the climate talks to hash out a plan. In the meantime, Alberta is moving ahead with its current strategy.


McKenna said she had a breakfast meeting with premiers today to discuss how they will make progress once they return to Canada, but didn't elaborate on what was discussed.

"We are committed to moving toward a low-carbon economy and we need to look at what that means," said McKenna at a press conference today in Paris.

Alberta's Minister of the Environment Shannon Phillips said the federal government and provinces understand "Alberta is an energy producer and will remain so for the foreseeable future."

Research published by the journal Nature at the beginning of this year shows that about 80 percent of global fossil fuels reserves must be left in the ground in order to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. In order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, even more fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground.

Alberta has committed to cap oil sands emissions at 100 megatons of carbon per year, a plan that could allow the oil sands to grow until 2030.

This cap is appropriate for a heavy oil industry that powers the rest of the Canadian economy, said Phillips.

Alberta has had conversations with fellow ministers today, said Phillips. And everyone understands that Alberta is in a unique position and will do its fair share to reduce Canada's emissions, she said.

Related: Canada Takes the Side of Poor Countries at Climate Talks

Alberta is now among the leaders of North America in terms of climate change policy, she added.


"We have to cap oil sands emissions way lower than what Alberta has pledged. They have moved in the right direction, but it's nowhere near enough," said Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich—Gulf Islands.

And there has been mounting pressure around the targets in general. Hundreds of members from civil society groups staged a sit-in today outside the plenary rooms of the negotiations demanding leaders adopt the 1.5-degree target.

Young Canadians at the COP21 were cautiously celebrating Canada's new commitments. They hosted a "retirement party" today for the oil sands and pipeline projects that won't be needed once Canada starts acting on its climate commitments.

"We love that they made this promise, we just want to remind everyone, including the government, what the promise means," said Bethany Hindmarsh with the Canadian Youth Delegation.

The 1.5 degree target is important for a lot of people to stay alive, said Hindmarsh. But that number means the end of the expansion of the Canadian tar sands, no Energy East or Kinder Morgan pipelines, she said.

"We want governments to put a plan behind the promise," she said.

Follow Ashley Renders on Twitter: @iamrenders