Climate Change

Fossil Fuels and Climate Change
Vegetation was incorporated into sediment rock some 110 million years ago in the Alberta basin including Athabasca and Fort McMurray (this age varies for oil deposits; in some it is 300 million years ago). This source rock was melted and oil emerged some 70 million years ago. The oil migrated and was trapped. We now look for it, and find it. Globally we produce some 80 million barrels of oil daily, each barrel being 205 litres or 45 imperial gallons. We use it, and increasing numbers of humans are demanding more for internal combustion engines, jets, heating, air conditioning and production of cement, steel (mainly for the car industry and construction) and electricity.
But there are consequences. Oil products such as gasoline are very rich in carbon and during the combustion process the carbon combines with oxygen from the air to form carbon dioxide. One litre of gasoline for example, containing 0.64 kg of carbon combines with nearly three times that amount of oxygen, thus producing about 2.4 kg of carbon dioxide. You use a full tank and you produce more than twice its weight in carbon dioxide. This gas is one of many greenhouse gases. The greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor trap heat from the sun in our atmosphere after radiation from the ground. Without this greenhouse effect our atmosphere would be 36°C colder.  The greenhouse effect suits us just fine but how much greenhouse effect is too much?
We are told that since the industrial revolution carbon dioxide has increased by some 30% in the atmosphere. In the last 20 years emission rates of carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels have increased almost 40%, and carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere. Our use of fossil fuels (coal is used to generate electricity) puts some 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. To put this into perspective recall the eruption of Mt St. Helen on March 18 , 1980. It released some 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For this eruption to equal the tonnes added by our fossil fuels would mean 3 eruptions of Mt St Helen every day (Knowledge Network B.C., Earth Sciences, January 11, 2006).  About half of the carbon dioxide spewed into the air is deposited on oceans and land and temporarily sequestrated in vegetation.  This sequestration is variable and influenced by global management of agricultural lands and forests.  It has been calculated (W. Rees, 1997, Urban Ecosystems, Vol.1, 63 - 75) that it takes 2.34 hectares (5.8 acres) of ecologically productive land to sequester the carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels used by every Canadian. Every year the greenhouse gases produced by Canadians is increasing as are the acres of land needed to sequester the increased carbon dioxide.
Records of global temperature and regional extremes in climate prompted the formation of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to NASA, Earth's average surface temperature has risen 0.8°C, with three quarters of that occurring since the1970s. The IPCC is a science-based body which provides peer reviewed information to policy makers.  Every five years it produces its Assessment Report with the fourth assessment to be released in 2006.  These reports produced by hundreds of scientists from hundreds of countries are the most completed climate assessments available.  Based on climate models which include six greenhouse gases, solar, volcanic, oceanic and aerosol effects, the IPCC has projected a range of warming by the year 2100 from 1.4°C to 5.8°C. There is considerable agreement on projections of warming for the next two to three decades which, because of lag periods, is already beyond our control. This assessment has recently been supported by studies on ocean temperatures with evidence of human induced changes (Barnett Science, July 8, 2005, page 284).
The consequences of fossil fuels to climate change is the most urgent issue facing society today. The interchange of heat from the sun among land, vegetation, oceans and lower and upper atmosphere is a complex system which will challenge us for many years to come. Nevertheless, all nations agree that reduction in emission of greenhouse gases is urgently needed. The Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 157 nations including China and India, which are not yet bound by emissions caps, has set initial targets which, as low as they are will be met by only a few countries by 2012. The United States, which is the main greenhouse gas producer has instead opted to join the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which does not commit it to targeted reductions. It hopes to meet its hunger for fossil fuels by research and new technology. In the meantime, reduced use of fossil fuels is not considered.
Reluctant nations with short term vision, like the USA, fear the economic consequences of corrective action. Canada, which ratified the Kyoto Protocol, will most likely miss its targets and this vital issue was conveniently ignored by most parties in the recent federal election.  Nations with a long term vision also fear the economic consequences of corrective action but above all they fear the largely unpredictable consequences to all living systems by delayed and insufficient action.  Fossil fuels sustain the present level of economy at the expense of the environment.  A healthy environment sustains both life and the economy.  There is really no choice but to behave in an environmentally sensitive manner.  We are not only part of the environment but we have made ourselves a dominant part of this life giving system. Humans use some 20% of plant organic matter produced globally through photosynthesis. The environment is our long term economy.
It is doubtful that we will ever have enough information to categorically state to what extent we are influencing the climate.  Mankind has not faced such a question before. We have created the conditions for this question.  Will we use our foresight to respond to this question? How much are we prepared to risk in this uncertainty? Are we prepared for lifestyle changes (travel, public transport, frivolous energy and material consumption, vehicles), or are we relying on science and technology to provide enough alternative energy quickly enough?  This alternative energy has to not only urgently meet the increasing hunger for energy but also at the same time compensate for reduced use of fossil fuels. Britain proposed a travel reduction but opted to enlarge the motorway network instead.
There is no harm done by looking for cheap (easy) oil or coal in an ecologically responsible manner; there is no harm done by finding such cheap oil or coal. However, it is harmful to extract expensive oil from sand with high energy input and massive environmental impacts. It is also harmful to use these fuels without due precautionary consideration of the consequences to ourselves and all other living systems. Alberta has made financial gains from short-term fossil fuel exploitation. We need to invest in environmentally friendly sources of energy. We need long-term legislation which addresses the above realities and uncertainties by taxing frivolous use of energy, encouraging energy efficiency, promoting public transport, converting waste into biofuels and building a north-south rail service.
I fear the consequences of insufficient action and therefore do consider the attitudes and irresponsible use of fossil fuels by, for example, the nations of America, China and Canada as threatening and antisocial.
Klaus Jericho