New study suggests coal is bigger threat than oil sands
However, Weaver, a University of Victoria professor, wants to make it crystal clear that the research should not be seen as support for a fossil-fuel-based economy in any form.
"We were trying to address some of the rhetoric we heard back in September when the Keystone pipeline was front and centre news," said Weaver, Canada Research chair in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and contributor to the Nobel Prizewinning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
During the fall Keystone XL debate, a NASA climate scientist opposed to the pipeline described the oilsands as "the biggest carbon bomb on the planet."
Weaver wanted some firm figures to eliminate the rhetoric coming from both sides.
"The question we were trying to address was the rhetoric about the potential carbon bomb if all the oil in the tarsands was combusted. We thought the numbers would be huge," Weaver said of his study, published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, an offshoot of prestigious science journal Nature.
Instead, the study by Weaver and doctoral student Neil Swart, found that burning every drop of the estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in the oilsands would result in climate warming of 0.36 C. Burning only the proven economically viable oil would lead to warming of 0.03 C. "That is not as big as we thought, but it clearly doesn't give the tarsands industries a get-out-of-jail-free card," Weaver said.
"All the criticisms still stand. It's massive in terms of Canadian emissions."
Also, the study does not take into account loss of natural habitat and biodiversity resulting from tarsands oil extraction, he said.
The bottom line remains the commitment by governments around the world to keep warming to a maximum of two degrees.
Figures in Weaver and Swart's study show that burning all the coal resources or unconventional gas, such as the natural gas obtained by fracking, could bump temperatures way over those limits.
"The whole idea that coal burning can be made clean is an oxymoron," Weaver said.
"I do think we need to have some solid soul searching within places like the U.S and China, where coal is being combusted on a grand scale," said Weaver, adding that Canada needs to look at strong regulations governing the use of coal.
"If we want to deal with this warming problem, we have to get a handle on coal now. Not later, but now," he said.
At the heart of the problem is society's addiction to fossil fuels. As easily accessible coal, oil and gas are exhausted, fossil fuels are being extracted in more unconventional ways from more remote parts of the Earth and wreaking havoc on the environment, Weaver warned.
The tarsands are a symptom of a big problem, Weaver said.
"We can either treat the symptom or go for the cure. The cure is to wean ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels."