Alberta and the Carbon Budget

Photo by Pixabay: Smoke Stacks Against Blue Sky

Few people appreciate the impact Alberta fossil fuels have on the global carbon budget for 1.5℃. But the impact is huge. Recently, I calculated the life cycle emissions of Alberta’s crude oil and natural gas. In this post, I’ll sum up the emissions from our oil and gas and compare our total projected emissions to the carbon budget for 1.5℃.

Life cycle emissions include the complete, well-to-wheels emissions resulting from a barrel of crude oil or cubic metre of natural gas. I believe a full accounting of life cycle emissions is necessary to fully appreciate the vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the production, refining, and combustion of Alberta oil and gas — resources that come from the ground beneath our feet.

What Is the Carbon Budget?

If you’ve never heard the term carbon budget, it refers to the maximum quantity of greenhouse gases we can emit without exceeding 1.5℃ of average global warming. That 1.5℃ limit is not arbitrary — climate models predict a variety of extremely serious consequences if we exceed this limit. It’s also enshrined in law. Canada agreed to uphold this limit when Parliament voted,  on October 5th, 2016, to ratify the Paris Agreement.

But before we go any further, let’s take a closer look at the carbon budget — at its size and the ways in which it shapes our conversations about climate and energy.


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How Large Is the Carbon Budget?

Late last year, Carbon Brief reported on the work of the Global Carbon Project (GCP), which calculated the carbon budget at 380 billion tonnes of CO2. This figure represents the quantity of carbon dioxide humanity can emit while still maintaining a 50 per cent chance of staying below 1.5℃ of warming. Carbon Brief also noted that global CO2 emissions had reached a near-record level in 2022. At that rate, we would use up the carbon budget in just nine years.

As disconcerting as this news may sound, the actual carbon budget might be even tighter. Carbon Brief also considered findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the European Union’s CONSTRAIN project, which examined recent scientific advances in climate modelling. When Carbon Brief combined those findings with the GCP data, it revised its estimate of the carbon budget downward to 260 billion tonnes. It also calculated that, if global emissions continued at 2022 levels, we’d blow our budget in about 6 1/2 years.

Making Sense of the Carbon Budget

The Carbon Brief post points out some of the key uses, and misuses, of the carbon budget concept. One of the benefits of a budget is that it tells us exactly how much CO2 we can still emit. Setting an upper limit on greenhouse gas emissions helps define the emissions reductions public policy must deliver. It’s important for governments, corporations, and financial institutions to take the carbon budget seriously.

The carbon budget is less helpful when we try to answer the question how long. It’s confusing to make policy based on estimates of how many years are left in the carbon budget. It’s easy to think of that number as the period of time we have for starting to reduce emissions rather than the end date for actually achieving net zero. Our journey to net zero must end, not begin, in six to nine years.

It’s also misleading to say that with only six or nine years left in the budget, the situation is hopeless and that it’s useless to even try to achieve net zero in that time. This position is one of the “surrender” arguments mounted by proponents of climate delay. It puts forth the view that, because we can’t achieve the required reductions on time, we might as well make the most of fossil fuels while we still can. This argument is a stalking horse for continued or expanded fossil fuel production. We’re in an emergency. This is no time for defeatism.

Carbon Brief also estimated that existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure would add around 780 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions beyond the amount we’ve already emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Age. This point brings us back to the infrastructure we’ve already built in Alberta — an enormous industrial edifice that some, against all reason, still want to expand.

Alberta’s Oil and Gas Emissions

Using conservative benchmarks, I calculate that Alberta crude oil production will result in the emission of 26,975 million tonnes of CO2 between now and 2050. That’s almost 27 billion tonnes, a number that’s easier to compare with the Carbon Brief budget. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I base this calculation on the production figures envisioned under the latest iteration of the Canada Energy Regulator’s Evolving Policies Case for crude oil production.

Using conservative benchmarks, I also calculate that Alberta gas will result in the emission of 4,574 to 5,094 million tonnes of CO2 between now and 2050. Let’s call it 4.6 to 5.1 billion tonnes, again for ease of comparison with the Carbon Brief budget. As with crude oil, I base this calculation on the production figures envisioned under the latest iteration of the Canada Energy Regulator’s Evolving Policies Case for natural gas production.

Taken together, these calculations mean that Alberta fossil fuels are poised to produce 31.6 to 32.1 billion tonnes of CO2 between now and 2050.

If we compare these numbers with the estimates in the Carbon Brief post, we find that Alberta fossil fuels will use up roughly:

  • 8 per cent of the “high” Carbon Brief budget of 380 billion tonnes
  • 12 per cent of the “low” Carbon Brief budget of 260 billion tonnes

In a chart, the numbers look like this:

Alberta Fossil Fuels and the Global Carbon Budget

Why Alberta’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Matter

What difference does all this make, you might ask. Every place produces greenhouse gases. Why do our emissions matter?

Let’s start by considering our province’s size and wealth. Two relevant indicators are population and gross domestic product per capita.With a population currently estimated at 4.6 million, Alberta is home to just 0.05 per cent of the world’s 7.9 billion people. In a pie chart, Alberta’s share of the world’s current population is barely even visible:

Alberta's Share of the World's Total Population

If we consider GDP per capita, it’s clear that we Albertans are already pretty well off. Alberta’s GDP came to $322.9 billion dollars in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. Our province’s population that year was 4,262,635. That works out to $75,751 CAD for every Albertan. At the average exchange rate for 2021, that comes to $60,434 USD. How do we compare with the rest of the world? Really well, actually. Globally, the World Bank pegged average GDP per capita that year at $12,236.60 USD. So we Albertans are about five times as rich as the average global citizen. Here’s the chart:

Alberta and World Gross Domestic Product per Capita (2021)

The Moral Story Behind the Numbers

Talking about tonnes of CO2 or GDP per capita is a pretty abstract way to discuss the climate crisis and our fossil fuel economy. They make it easy to lose sight of the ways in which a warming earth will affect individuals. 

But numbers like these tell us what will happen to large numbers of people. They help us identify the winners and losers in the human struggle. And in that sense, they tell a moral story. 

I’m curious to know what this moral story means to you.

Does it surprise you to learn that 4.6 million Albertans are about to consume 8–12 per cent of the global carbon budget for 1.5℃ — that is, the carbon budget for the entire human race? Does that seem like our reasonable share?

What about the monetary benefits we derive from our fossil fuels? Economists have recently calculated that Africa will see a 34 per cent decline in GDP per capita in the latter half of the 21st century. With Albertans already five times as wealthy as the world’s average citizen, does it seem fair to you that we should enjoy so much of the benefits of fossil fuels while sharing so little in the pain they impose on others?

Oh, and speaking of GDP decline, we have our own to consider. Four of Canada’s ten most damaging weather events have hit Alberta. And in a recent Climate Institute study, analysts predict steadily rising impacts on Canada’s GDP — $25 billion by 2025, $35 billion by 2030, and a whopping $80 to $103 billion by 2055.

In other words, global warming is already having a significant impact on our own economy. The longer we wait to reduce oil and gas production, that greater the impact will be. 

That’s why the carbon budget is important — for us.

Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

P.S. When the Canada Energy Regulator issued its Canada’s Energy Future 2023 report last June, I updated my calculation of Alberta’s share of the global carbon budget, based on the CER’s updated scenarios. It didn’t look much better.

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