04/19/2013 02:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Ill Logic of Keystone XL

Carbon logic dictates that if President Obama is at all serious about addressing climate change, he must help put an end to Canada's tar sands folly, and say no to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Leaders of the world's governments made a commitment to us more than 20 years ago. They adopted a legally binding convention aimed at "preventing dangerous interference with the climate system."

It took them another 17 years or so to define what they actually meant by that, and to come up with a compromise which has become the key benchmark for addressing climate change -- holding the rise in global temperature (based on pre-industrial times) below 2°C. More than 100 countries consider even that much of an increase to be unacceptable, as the very existence of low-lying and island states would still be at risk. But 2°C it is, and at least that is a commitment.

Unfortunately, even accounting for the pledges made by governments to bring their greenhouse gas emissions under control, we are rapidly heading towards a 3.5-4° rise by the end of the century.

2013-04-18-tcktcktckearthcoals600.jpg Creative Commons:; Robert Donovan

Last year, the World Bank put out a report examining what a 4° world would look like, and I for one lost a couple of nights sleep after reading it. In his foreword to the report, World Bank President, Dr. Jim Yong Kim said it was devastating, and he hoped it would shock people into action.

And as IMF Chief Christine Lagarde put it recently in the most eloquent of economic terms, "Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled."

So how urgent is it that we take action? Why does one more pipeline really matter? After all, we're talking about 4° by the end of the century - seems like a long time off. Unfortunately, due to the long lag time in the climate system, it is what we do right now that will determine whether we stay under the 2° limit or not.

According to the International Energy Agency, within five short years we will have locked in all the emissions to take us to 2°. What they mean is that when you build a new coal-fired power plant with a 60 year lifespan, or invest billions of dollars to pump tar sands out of Canada, you need to calculate the CO2 which will be emitted over the full lifetime of the installation.

According to a new report by Oil Change International, "Between 2015 and 2050, the pipeline alone would result in emissions of 6.34 billion metric tons of CO2e. This amount is greater than the 2011 total annual carbon dioxide emissions of the United States." In other words, Keystone XL is a perfect example of the "emissions lock in" that the International Energy Agency has warned about.

Put another way, the IEA has also warned that if we are to fulfill our commitment to keep temperature rise below 2°C, two thirds of the oil, coal, natural gas etc. that we already know about can't be burnt.

Think about it. We only have around five years to transform our energy system. And around 1.3 billion people don't even have access to electricity yet. The IEA says we could buy a few years extra time if we go all out on conservation and to use energy much more efficiently than we currently do, but the challenge is clear.

There is simply no (carbon) logic in moving forward with Keystone.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no pretenses of being anything other than an international pariah when it comes to climate change. President Obama, on the other hand, promised in his second inaugural speech that "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." Well Mr. President, it's time to show us what you've got.

(This post was originally published on Daily Kos.)