Joris Voorhoeve: Draw a line on tar sands

  • Article by: JORIS VOORHOEVE
  • Updated: February 17, 2009 - 7:21 AM

Canada hopes to be freed of environmental obligations so it can develop a very dirty method of oil extraction. This would be a horrible precedent.

The dependence of rich countries on oil and gas from not-so-reliable OPEC countries makes us look at alternatives. Canada pushes its tar sands, which can be turned into oil. But at what price?

Tar sands are very polluting: Their use involves huge quantities of carbon dioxide, sulphur and other noxious substances that worsen the environment. Alberta talks of carbon-dioxide storage, but there is not yet a viable solution.

President Obama will meet Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week. Harper announced that he wants to commit the United States to this "alternative" fuel from a reliable ally. But such a deal would worsen global environmental stress. It will be more of a problem than a solution.

Just after Obama's election, Harper said he wanted a U.S.-Canada climate pact that would exempt greenhouse-gas emission from tar sands from carbon-dioxide emission rules. Obama should not agree. If exemptions are made for tar sands, then China, Great Britain, India and many others with vast coal reserves will claim similar exemptions. Exemptions would nullify the international agreements to curb global warming, sea-level rise and other disastrous effects of climate change.

If Canada gets away with such exemptions, why should developing countries not get similar privileges? The end would be a complete failure of all policies to curb global warming.

Global warming has disastrous effects on the poorest countries. Oxfam International published an alarming study on the effects on the bottom billion of the world's population. Hundreds of millions of people living in river deltas and island states in the Pacific will face drowning or moving to other countries in the next decades. In higher regions, the effects will be severe droughts, starvation and migration.

Imagine the effects on civil unrest, civil wars, hunger and rampant diseases. This is not just energy policy. This concerns international security, and therefore also U.S. national security. It concerns the right to live, the most basic human right of all. An environmentally sound energy policy is about survival of hundreds of millions of people in the next decades. The United States wants to be the leader in human rights and development? Here is an opportunity to show the right way -- by avoiding the wrong approach.

Joris Voorhoeve, former minister of defense of the Netherlands, is chair of the European Center for Conflict Prevention and Oxfam Netherlands.

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