COP27 is over. The UN summit took one big step forward on climate justice with the creation of a loss and damage fund for the most impacted nations, while taking two enormous steps backwards by failing to call for a phaseout of all fossil fuels.
Poorer nations railed against the difficulty of trusting rich nations that say they are committed to fighting climate change, while continuing to build mega projects that will lock in decades of fossil fuel emissions. Chief among those nations it is hard to trust? Canada.
Our government is either betting that climate action will fail, and we will continue burning fossil fuels well into the next century as the human race careens towards extinction, or setting our communities up for economic disaster as these projects are pulled offline decades earlier than planned.
Twelve Canadian fossil fuel projects, all planned to operate past 2050, could release enough carbon to effectively “doom humanity.”
Canada is expanding production of these so-called carbon bombs — massive extraction projects that threaten the planet — including one of the largest gas deposits in the world. These projects don’t merely undermine Canada’s global climate commitments, according to a new investigation by Ricochet, they put humanity on a disastrous path.
The Canadian government talks a good game on climate action, but uses emissions calculations that are deeply misleading. In short, we count the emissions involved in extracting and transporting fossil fuels, but not the emissions created when they are ultimately burned in third countries. This failure to account for downstream emissions is not unique to Canada, but its use to mislead Canadians about our true role in the climate crisis is no less pernicious.
Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation revealed that the fossil fuel industry globally is pursuing or already operating hundreds of projects described as “carbon bombs,” defined as any fossil fuel operation that would lead to the emission of a billion tonnes or more of CO2. If exploited in full, these projects would send the world careening far past the Paris Agreement target of keeping the global average temperature rise below 2 C relative to preindustrial levels.
A dozen of these projects are in Canada, already the fourth-largest producer of oil in the world and a top 10 producer of both gas and coal:
- three of the country’s carbon bombs are coal mines
- five are oil sands projects
- four are shale deposits that produce primarily fracked methane gas
If fully exploited and burned, the reserves held in these 12 projects alone would emit 39 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, or roughly 60 years’ worth of Canada’s domestic emissions at 2021 levels.
This represents approximately one-tenth of the total emissions that can be released into the atmosphere while retaining a mere 50 per cent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 C, according to researchers with the Global Carbon Project. Other analyses suggest the remaining carbon budget is even smaller, or may even have already been spent.
Canada’s math ‘doesn’t add up’
Our team investigated the current status, investment activity, and planned lifespans of Canada’s 12 carbon bombs and compared the data to the government’s climate plans and to global carbon budgets. The results show that Canada’s fossil fuel expansion plans are radically out of step with the scientific consensus and rely on a problematic assumption that Canada will be the very last country producing fossil fuels.
A key way the government downplays the impact of fossil fuel projects is by ignoring and abdicating responsibility for downstream emissions.
If Canada were to meet its 2030 emissions target and commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, it would emit no more than around five billion tonnes of CO2 domestically between now and 2050. The 39 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in its carbon bombs represent nearly eight times that amount.
“The fact is that the math doesn’t add up,” said Tzeporah Berman, the international program director at Stand.earth and chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. Canada’s climate ambitions can only be achieved “if the government commits to stopping expansion of production and managing a winddown of production in line with Paris goals.”
Canada obscures the full impact of its emissions by not recognizing downstream emissions, or “scope three” emissions — the emissions that occur in other countries when Canada’s exported fossil fuels are burned — in its national carbon accounting.
Downstream emissions from fossil fuels exported by Canada exceed the country’s domestic emissions by over 30 per cent, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada data compiled by Ecojustice. Combining downstream and domestic emissions, Canada’s total emissions in 2019 (before the pandemic-induced dip) were 1,684 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. Yet, whenever the government announces official emissions reduction targets, they apply only to domestic emissions — about 730 megatonnes, or less than half, of the 2019 total.
Ignoring the country’s exported emissions misleads the public on the impact of Canada’s rapidly expanding production on demand for fossil fuels and, as such, on the world’s ability to meet its climate goals.
Every barrel of oil added to the global supply lowers the price of oil enough to boost consumption by approximately 0.5 barrels, according to Peter Erickson, a researcher with the Stockholm Environment Institute. In other words, increasing the production of fossil fuels actually increases not just the supply but also the demand for these fuels.
When Canada ignores its exported emissions, it downplays its role in driving demand for fossil fuels globally. Conversely, if Canada were to limit its exports of fossil fuels, it could directly cut global oil consumption.
Banking on a catastrophic scenario
There is a consensus in the global scientific community — including the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 report, the UN Environment Programme’s Production Gap Report, and the majority of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios — that both the production of and demand for oil, gas, and coal must begin falling immediately in order to limit global heating to 1.5 C.
Climate scientist Peter Kalmus put it even more simply in an interview for this story.
“Roughly three-quarters of global heating and climate breakdown come from burning fossil fuels. If that’s the cause, we need to end [the burning of fossil fuels]. Anything else we do is just going to be skirting around the issue.”
By continuing to grow fossil fuel production, Canada is signalling that it expects global demand for fossil fuels to rise, a scenario that would lead to catastrophic global heating. Or, implicitly, that it believes other countries should cut production first — meaning Canada has more of a right to produce fossil fuels than other countries, particularly those in the Global South.
“If every country wants to have the last barrel sold, then that means collectively we are dooming humanity,” said Berman, underlining that this approach is incompatible with any idea of equity or fairness.
“Simply looking at our own competitiveness in the global market means we are contributing to a path that will lead the world, not just past 1.5 or 2 degrees, but likely well past 3 or 4 degrees,” she said. That means large areas of the planet will become uninhabitable, possibly leading to billions of deaths.
“That is an untenable future. The government has a responsibility to plan for climate safety,” she added.
In June of this year, Canada’s National Observer reported that Finance Canada was banking on the Trans Mountain pipeline operating for 100 years in order for it to be viable. Other key infrastructure projects that facilitate the transport of fossil fuels from Canada’s carbon bomb sites to market, like Coastal GasLink, are also intended to operate well into the latter half of the century.
If global climate efforts successfully cut demand for fossil fuels, there will be no demand for oil from TMX in 50 years, let alone 100. By continuing to expand fossil fuel infrastructure, Canada is exposing itself to an escalating risk of “stranded assets” — the country’s carbon bombs may cease being economically viable before their planned lifespans are up, leaving taxpayers, workers, and communities on the hook, with potentially devastating economic consequences.
TMX is already not commercially viable and will cost taxpayers in excess of $17 billion, according to a new report released by West Coast Environmental Law, meaning it has effectively become a stranded asset before even being completed.
Virtually all of Canada’s carbon bombs have intended closure dates well beyond 2050, by which scientists warn that oil and gas production must have already fallen dramatically.
Because of these risks, academics, activists, and some countries are calling for supply-side policy: “defusing” carbon bombs by restricting the production of fossil fuels.
Canada is one of the world’s major fossil fuel producers, but its economy does not rely heavily on oil and gas (which accounts for only about 10 per cent of GDP). As such, the country is particularly well positioned to become a leader in supply-side climate policy, an approach that many — including the UN Secretary-General — are urgently calling for.
“If Canada is expanding production, it means other countries will have to decrease their production [to meet global climate targets]. That is very unlikely to be a fair process,” said David Tong, a senior researcher with Oil Change International.
Canada’s carbon bombs
Canada’s 12 carbon bomb projects are located in British Columbia and Alberta, and each hold reserves that would release more than a billion tonnes, or a gigatonne, of carbon emissions if burned.
The business of extracting fossil fuels isn’t kind to living things. From 2010 to 2014 First Nation Elders held an annual healing walk through the heart of the tar sands. Against a blistered and dead landscape that looked like Mordor, giant trucks rolled past, smokestacks belched and guns set on the edge of tailings ponds fired blanks every 30 seconds to scare off any birds that might consider setting down in the toxic soup.
Looking at a map that overlays the footprint of Canada’s dozen carbon bombs onto the boundaries of Alberta and British Columbia, it’s hard not to wonder why Canada is choosing to spread that devastation across the better part of two provinces.
Five of the carbon bombs are oil sands projects in Alberta. Each is already in operation with all but one having started up within the last two decades, years after Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol and decades after the country set its first climate target. None have extracted more than one-quarter of the proven reserves on-site. All are expected to reach peak production in the 2030s and 2040s, and to continue operating through the late 21st century, long after the world is supposed to have reached net zero.
Four more of Canada’s carbon bombs are unconventional shale deposits exploited through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, producing primarily methane. Natural gas is composed of up to 90 per cent methane, which releases CO2 when burned but is particularly harmful when released directly into the atmosphere through leaks in the production process.
The damage wrought by this greenhouse gas is often overlooked by the public, thanks to a sneaky marketing trick.
“Calling it ‘natural’ gas was a brilliant PR play by the industry,” Berman observed.
Located in northeast B.C. and part of Alberta, the Montney shale play is one of the largest gas deposits in the world, holding more than six trillion cubic metres of gas, or nearly 50 billion barrels of oil equivalent.
“What we are seeing in British Columbia in the Montney formation is the tar sands 10 years ago. I don’t think people really knew the extent of the development that was happening in Alberta (back then), and I don’t think people really understand the extent of what is happening right now in British Columbia,” said Berman.
“This is essentially the tar sands but for fracked gas.”
If fully exploited, the fossil fuels held in the Montney could emit a whopping 13.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent.
“From a climate emergency perspective, it’s a nightmare,” Berman added.
“Fracking is threatening our water, it’s threatening our health, and it’s threatening a stable climate,” she said. “That’s why other states around the world have been banning fracking. The fact that we are expanding it so significantly right now is both embarrassing and terrifying.”
While some conventional oil and gas production occurred in this area during the 20th century, the majority of the Montney play’s fossil fuels are only accessible because of the fracking boom that began in the early 2000s, spurred on by the deployment of new technologies.
The Canada Energy Regulator’s “current policies” scenario, which is based on existing and announced climate policies but not potential future changes, predicts that methane gas production, predominantly from the Montney play, won’t peak in Canada until at least 2050. And industry analysts forecast that Montney production will rise 65 per cent by 2030.
The LNG Canada export facility in Kitimat, B.C., and the associated Coastal GasLink pipeline project are being built to provide export capacity for the Montney play. Like many natural resource projects, Coastal GasLink has been at the centre of a high-profile fight for Indigeous sovereignty. The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, title holders to 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory that the pipeline route cuts through, have not consented to its construction.
The Liard Basin, which spans B.C., the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, is another large, unconventional shale deposit, but despite some development between 2008 and 2020, this carbon bomb is currently considered physically “stranded” by industry analysts, meaning there is no economical way to transport the gas to market. If additional export facilities and pipelines are approved on B.C.’s coast in the future, this carbon bomb may become financially viable.
Two other shale gas carbon bombs in Alberta, known as the Duvernay and Spirit River plays, together hold enough fossil fuels to emit 4.9 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent. Production is growing steadily in both regions after unconventional extraction techniques took off in 2010 and 2011.
And then there’s the dirtiest fossil fuel of all: coal.
Canada continues to invest in coal
At the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Canada and the United Kingdom joined forces to found the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which describes itself as a “coalition of national and subnational governments, businesses and organizations working to advance the transition from unabated coal power generation to clean energy.” The provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec are also members.
And still, three of Canada’s carbon bombs are coal mines. Two of these have yet to be built and one is about to undergo a massive expansion.
The catch? These mines produce metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. Canada’s commitments through the Powering Past Coal Alliance to phase out coal production are focused solely on thermal coal, or coal that is used to fuel power plants.
“Nearly all of the coal in steelmaking ends up in our atmosphere as greenhouse gases. That's the bottom line,” said Berman.
“The atmosphere doesn’t negotiate.… The direct result of burning coal is that people all over the world are dying and being displaced. Thirty-three million people displaced in Pakistan. In California, people were incinerated in their cars trying to get out of their towns.”
NDP natural resources critic Charlie Angus put it bluntly: “What we’re dealing with is duplicity. The world is trying to stop coal production and Canada is investing in it.”
A new report by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research argues that all coal should be treated equally. The emissions profile of metallurgical coal is not substantially different from that of thermal coal, and alternatives to using metallurgical coal for steel production exist.
Tong agreed. “Saying 'Oh, it’s metallurgical coal, not thermal coal’ doesn’t change, significantly, the carbon pollution associated with it, and there are already under development alternatives to the use of coking coal in steel production, so this is a short-sighted gambit.”
Canada is already the third-largest producer of metallurgical coal worldwide.
Construction on the Murray River Coal Mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C. has yet to begin, but the deposits there represent Canada’s second-largest carbon bomb in terms of potential emissions.
The federal government issued an environmental assessment certificate in 2015 allowing construction, and extended that certificate for another five years in 2020. The Murray River Coal Mine is expected to operate for 30 years.
The Gething Coal Mine, also in B.C., is still in the provincial environmental assessment process and hasn’t seen new filings since 2019. If it moves forward, it will produce 780 million tonnes of coal over 40 years before closing in the 2060s.
The Fording River Coal Mine in southeast B.C. has been operating since 1971 and has produced more than 200 million tonnes of coal. Teck, the mine’s owner, is currently applying to expand the mine to a new area; without the expansion, production levels will drop precipitously. With it, the mine will be able to continue producing at current levels for nearly 40 more years.
The Ktunaxa First Nation is currently in a dispute resolution process with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office over whether the project would “cause extraordinary adverse effects.” A federal assessment is still ongoing.
In a statement, Teck told Ricochet that all of the company’s emissions, including scope three emissions, are covered by their climate plan, but indicated it is relying on steel producers to achieve net-zero steel production while still using the coal the company exports from Canada. (Ricochet reached out to all the companies responsible for projects mentioned in this investigation. Only Teck issued a statement in response to requests.)
Despite their outsized impact, these carbon bomb projects seem to be flying under the radar. Silent, but deadly.
Earlier this year the federal government approved the Bay du Nord deepwater oil and gas project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. A lightning rod for controversy, critics have pilloried the massive project for contradicting, even betraying, government commitments on climate.
But, for comparison, Bay du Nord is expected to have an impact just one-tenth the size of even the smallest of Canada’s carbon bombs. The carbon bomb projects already operating each represent between 16 and 52 per cent of Canada’s production of the fossil fuel in question.
As these mega-projects go, so may our future.
Equity isn’t part of Canada’s plan
At this month’s COP conference, poorer nations are calling on richer countries to compensate them for the disproportionate impact of climate change, and even the United States appears ready to entertain the idea. But Canada’s approach seems to have been drawn up with little regard for this kind of global fairness.
In May 2021, the International Energy Agency released a new Net Zero by 2050” scenario that assessed global energy production and fossil fuel demand pathways to limit global heating to 1.5 C. This scenario, and the organization’s subsequent World Energy Outlook 2021 report, reach “a very strong conclusion that there’s no room for new oil and gas production and new investment in oil, gas, and coal,” said Tong.
He added it is essentially impossible to model a “credible scenario” that achieves the Paris goals while still allowing new fossil fuel development.
Simply put, Canada’s fossil fuel expansion plans are incompatible with the Paris goals. That, or they are based on the assumption that other countries will cut production faster than Canada’s production grows. Tong said Canada is “either gambling on a failure to achieve the Paris goals or they’re hoping that some other oil-and-gas-producing nation will blink first and strand their assets.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has suggested that was exactly his intention, stating that by expanding production, “Canada is positioned to be the supplier of energy in a net-zero world” in a recent interview with Bloomberg.
For Angus, Canada’s hypocrisy on emissions sounds a familiar note. “Trudeau is saying what every other leader of a petrostate is saying: ‘Let everyone else cut their production and we’ll continue to increase ours.’”
Ricochet asked the Prime Minister’s Office for an interview. A representative suggested speaking with Environment and Climate Change Canada instead and ignored further requests for comment.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson also declined interviews.
However, in a recent interview with The Tyee, Guilbeault emphasized that the emissions released from Canada’s fossil fuel exports are captured by other countries’ pledges: “They’re not escaping.”
Guilbeault said that Canada is following international guidelines for emissions reporting. Seth Klein, director of strategy at the Climate Emergency Unit, called that a “moral abdication” in testimony before the House of Commons earlier this year.
Berman framed it as an equity issue. “The fact is we are a wealthy nation that has contributed significantly to the climate crisis and we have benefited, significantly, from the development of fossil fuels.... Wealthy nations have to stop expanding fossil fuels first and manage a quicker wind-down than countries in the Global South.”
It’s true that carbon pollution is supposed to be counted by the countries that emit it within their borders, she said. The rationale was that it would lead countries to set policies that constrain demand for fossil fuels and the global market would respond by reducing supply accordingly.
But that hasn’t worked, primarily “because the market is so distorted by fossil fuel subsidies,” she said. (A 2020 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that Canada is “one of the largest international fossil fuel financers” providing at least $4.8 billion a year in direct subsidies to the industry and averaging another $11 billion per year in loans, guarantees, equity and grants.)
Whether Canada is responsible for these offshore emissions or not doesn’t change the fact that a growing global fossil fuel supply is incompatible with the Paris targets.
Angus said that “just shipping it offshore so it can be burnt in China, India, or Malaysia will not make these emissions go away.... They’re trying to play a sleight of hand here and it just doesn’t work.”
Tong said Canada has a moral responsibility. “In agreeing to Paris,” he said, “Canada agreed that it had a responsibility to cut emissions. Canada agreed that it is a wealthy country that has done more to contribute to the climate crisis. It should cut its emissions earlier than countries in the Global South.
“So for [the Canadian government] to be planning to pump oil … after 2050, it’s both inconsistent with the Paris goals and inconsistent with the Paris principles of equity.”
Canada could substantially lower global emissions
This is all pretty gloomy stuff, but the good news is that with a little bit of courage Canada could be a big part of the solution, instead of the problem.
When climate regulation causes the oil and gas industry to move its investment to a country with weaker regulations in a one-to-one shift, lobbyists at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers refer to it as “carbon leakage.”
But the UN’s Production Gap Report says that “this argument of perfect substitution defies basic economics of supply and demand. If there is less available of a commodity — such as oil — its price will increase, meaning less of it will be consumed.”
When global fossil fuel supply shrinks — say, because Canada chooses to leave one barrel of oil in the ground rather than extracting and exporting it — the global price increases, in turn reducing aggregate demand for oil. According to Erickson, one of the authors of the Production Gap Report, the average effect is significant: for every barrel of oil not produced, global oil consumption will decrease by around 0.5 barrels.
By not expanding oil and gas production, Canada could substantially lower global emissions. The converse is true, as well: by expanding oil and gas production, Canada is actually increasing total oil and gas consumption and, as such, increasing emissions.
Erickson assessed this impact directly in a study in 2018. He found that if the country cut production to 2005 levels, it could reduce global emissions substantially; even just holding production at 2018 levels rather than allowing it to grow could cut global emissions by almost a quarter of Canada’s current annual domestic emissions.
These would just be the consumption emissions avoided: the actual total would be even higher because the emissions associated with extracting, processing, and transporting that oil domestically would be eliminated as well, helping Canada meet its domestic climate targets.
Who should produce oil last?
In 2012, just as many of Canada’s oil sands carbon bombs were ramping up production, the renowned climate scientist James Hansen described these projects in the New York Times as “game over for the climate.”
“That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk,” Hansen wrote a decade ago.
According to the Canadian Energy Centre, an Alberta government project dedicated to advocating for the province’s fossil fuels, oil sands production has more than doubled since 2010 and is expected to continue growing.
But even by the standards of fossil fuel production generally, Canada’s oil sands are particularly environmentally damaging and energy intensive.
National Geographic has called them “the world’s most destructive operation.”
The CEC even admits that Canada has “high CO2 emissions intensity among its peers” because of its “energy-intensive oil sands sector,” and their recent report found that the carbon intensity of Canada’s oil and gas sector has actually increased over the last decade.
A number of studies have attempted to efficiently and fairly allocate the remaining allowable production within the IPCC’s carbon budgets amongst the world’s fossil fuel producing nations. If someone, somewhere in the world is going to be producing fossil fuels last, should it really be Canada, with its abnormally energy-intensive operation?
One study, published in Nature last year, used both cost and carbon intensity to determine which fossil fuel reserves would be most efficient to extract and which should be left in the ground in order to retain a 50 per cent chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees. The authors found that Canada must forgo 83 per cent of its oil reserves.
“The vast majority of the world's fossil fuels are effectively unextractable and must remain in the ground if we want even half a chance at meeting our climate goals,” it writes. “One of our best climate scenarios, it seems, boils down to the statistical toss of a coin.”
Canada needs a full phaseout by 2035
A new Tyndall Centre report on fossil fuel “phaseout pathways” attempted to allocate remaining Paris-compliant fossil fuel extraction using a “fair shares” approach, based primarily on wealth and national dependence on fossil fuel revenue to determine when various countries should end fossil fuel production. The authors classified Canada as a “Group 1” country based on its relatively high GDP per capita and the relatively low overall contribution of the fossil fuel industry to GDP.
Using the carbon budgets from the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, they found that to retain a 50 per cent chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees, Group 1 countries like Canada would need to cut production by half in just the next six years and fully phase out their oil and gas industries by 2035. This would allow poorer countries that are more dependent on fossil fuel revenue more time, ensuring a just transition and hopefully avoiding economic collapse.
According to their analysis, all countries would have to phase out the vast majority of fossil fuel production by 2050 — the same year the iconic glaciers of Kilimanjaro, Yellowstone are expected to disappear.
Peter Newell, a professor of international relations and one of the co-authors of a paper calling for the development of an international Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, said a commitment to fairness and equity “is established under international law… Everyone needs to act, but some need to act more than others and faster than others, and clearly Canada and the UK and many other countries would fall into that camp.”
‘Meeting our targets would literally require tearing up contracts’
The Canadian government is not discussing what Canadians should realistically expect to happen over the next 10 years.
“Meeting our targets would literally require tearing up contracts, valid deals and agreements on an unimaginable scale,” Greta Thunberg wrote last month in The Guardian. “This should, of course, be dominating every hour of our everyday news feed, every political discussion, every business meeting and every inch of our daily lives.”
A study published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year found that if the world moves onto a path that would limit warming to 2 C, the upper limit defined by the Paris Agreement, as much as US$1.4 trillion worth of existing fossil fuel projects would become "stranded" — meaning their value would be lost because the world would no longer have a use for those fossil fuels.
The study found that nearly half of that $1.4 trillion is held by financial institutions, suggesting a bubble substantially bigger than that of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007.
Bill Carroll, a professor of sociology at the University of Victoria and co-director of the Corporate Mapping Project, said, “Putting this many eggs into the fossil fuel basket is just a really bad idea at this point.”
Carroll said that Canada’s five big banks are among the most significant funders of the fossil fuel industry globally. RBC, Scotiabank, and TD are in the top 12. The Competition Bureau is currently investigating RBC due to claims that it is misrepresenting its climate commitments.
Ricochet contacted all the major banks invested in Canada’s carbon bombs. None responded to requests for comment.
Many of Canada’s pension funds are also heavily invested in the industry. Carroll said that “These are investments that are very perilous both on ecological grounds and on financial grounds.”