Alberta and the Carbon Budget: An Update

Oil sands, Fort McMurray, eryn.rickard, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The carbon budget tells us how much CO2 we can emit without pushing the world past 1.5℃ of heating. If we take the concept seriously — and we should — we have to limit the emissions under our control. That means we have to take a close look at Alberta crude oil and natural gas.

The recent release of Canada’s Energy Future 2023 by the Canada Energy Regulator gives us a chance to peer into the future. Using three scenarios, EF2023 estimates how much oil and gas Canada and Alberta will produce under each scenario.

With those production numbers, I calculated the life cycle emissions of our crude oil and methane gas to see how much CO2 our fuels will release to the atmosphere.

In this post, I’ll sum up our emissions numbers to see how much of the carbon budget for 1.5℃ Alberta and Canada will use up.


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What Is the Carbon Budget?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term carbon budget, it refers to the maximum quantity of greenhouse gases we can contribute to the atmosphere without exceeding 1.5℃ of average global warming. I’ve discussed the carbon budget concept before, if you’d like to refresh your memory about it. 

As for its size, that amount varies. Climate science is complex, and it deals with uncertainty. In 2022, Carbon Brief reported on the work of the Global Carbon Project (GCP), which calculated that we could emit 380 billion tonnes of CO2 while still maintaining a 50 per cent chance of staying below 1.5℃.

The Carbon Brief post also noted, however, that the budget could be even tighter. Factoring in data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it concluded that the actual carbon budget could be as little as 260 billion tonnes of CO2

As I write these words, Climate Change Tracker estimates the carbon budget at 250 billion tonnes.

What the Carbon Budget Means for Alberta and Canada

The concept of the carbon budget makes it easy to lose yourself in some abstract numbers game, but it’s important to remember that carbon dioxide emissions affect our lives in dramatic ways. 

We’ve lived through repeated climate disasters in the spring and summer of 2023. We saw epic wildfires in Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec, and enormous floods in Nova Scotia.

Wildfire smoke blankets downtown Calgary
Wildfire smoke blankets downtown Calgary, Dwayne Reilander, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These disasters have taken lives. We lost Devyn Gale, who was trapped beneath a tree while fighting a blaze outside Revelstoke, B.C.

We lost Adam Yeadon, who was killed by a falling tree as he battled a fire near Fort Liard in the NWT.

We lost Ryan Gould, whose helicopter crashed while he was fighting a wildfire near Haig Lake in northern Alberta.

We lost Nicholas Anthony Holland (aged 52), Natalie Hazel Harnish and Colton Sisco (both aged six), and Terri-Lynn Keddy (aged 14), who were swept away by floodwaters in West Hants, Nova Scotia, on July 22.

And that’s just Canada. Around the world, we’re seeing wildfires in Greece and floods in India, China, and Spain. I can barely keep up with this roll call of disaster.

Average Global Temperature Rise

Because of global heating, the average global temperature in 2022 was about 1.15℃ warmer than the average from 1850–1900, before we started emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases. 

With the advent of the El Niño warming cycle, the average global temperature in the next five years is nearly certain to be between 1.1°C and 1.8°C higher than the 1850–1900 average. The average temperature will subside to something like the current average when the El Niño is over.

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These numbers mean something. We’re seeing more than just inconvenience or uncomfortable temperatures. We’re seeing outright disasters, which are causing death, suffering, and enormous economic losses. These conditions give us a taste of the chaos to come if we can’t get our fossil fuel habit under control.

So 1.5℃ isn’t just a number — it represents a boundary we must not cross if we are to maintain a livable planet for ourselves and our descendants. Fortunately, it’s not too late. Global warming is still under our control. We just need to act.

The most important thing we can do is to phase out oil, gas and coal. For us in Alberta, that means phasing out our own production, because those planet-wasting fuels are under our control.

Alberta’s Oil and Gas Emissions Under EF2023

To size up Alberta’s use of the carbon budget, we’ll use the Carbon Brief low and high estimates discussed above — 260 and 380 billion tonnes, respectively.

For crude oil, Alberta’s life cycle emissions will range from 21,415 to 35,668 megatonnes of CO2 between now and 2050, depending on which EF2023 scenario you consider.

For gas, Alberta’s life cycle emissions will range from 3,880 to 13,527 megatonnes of CO2, depending on which scenario you consider and which benchmarks you use to make the calculations.

The chart looks like this:

Alberta Fossil Fuel Emissions & Global Carbon Budget (2023–2050)

Compared to our position under EF2021, that’s not much better. We’ll use up:

  • 8–14 per cent of the low Carbon Brief budget
  • 6–10 per cent of the high Carbon Brief budget

What’s more, these numbers only represent the life cycle emissions of our fossil fuels. They don’t include emissions from agriculture and forestry, land use, transport, buildings, other industries, or the many other ways we add CO2 — and heat — to our atmosphere.

We can do better yet, Alberta, and we’ll spare ourselves a lot of climate pain in the process. 

The best thing we can do to minimize global warming is to phase out our own fossil fuel production.

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