Neil C. Swart

The Alberta Oil Sands and Climate

Neil C. Swart and Andrew J. Weaver, Nature Climate Change, 2, 2012

doi:10.1038/nclimate1421

About the commentary

Developing the Alberta oil-sands will lead to carbon emissions that in turn result in global warming. Our paper calculates the amount of warming the oil-sands could potentially cause. We also consider how oil-sands carbon emissions relate to the effort to keep global mean temperatures from exceeding 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord. Finally, we compare the potential for warming of the Alberta oil-sands with the potential for warming of other global fossil-fuel resources.
Potential Oil Sands Carbon Footprints


The green circle illustrates the current maximum cumulative per capita carbon emissions compatible with keeping global mean warming below 2°C. The red circle shows the per capita carbon footprint that would result from the current populations of the USA and Canada utilizing the Alberta oil sands proven reserves. The blue circle shows the per capita carbon footprint that would be achieved by the current Chinese population by fully utilizing the proven oil sands reserve. The green-circle shows the limit for all emissions, but the red and blue circles show only oil-sands related emissions, and do not include emissions from other sources such as coal burning. Read more about oil-sands emissions and 2°C warming

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Read the commentary here.

  • NEW: PDF of calculations for Well-to-wheel warming estimates NOT included in the Nature Climate Change commentary
  • Key Points

    Additional images are included below.

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    Oil-sands warming above background
    The black curve shows the global mean temperature increase simulated due to observed historical human carbon emissions (from 1800-2000), and the projected future emissions under the IPCC SRESA2 'business as usual' scenario (2001-2100). The solid red curve shows the warming that would occur due emissions from utilizing the Alberta oil-sands proven reserve, over the period 2012-2062, in addition to the SRESA2 emissions. The dashed red curve shows the warming that would occur if the entire Alberta oil-sands oil in place were burnt over the period 2012-2062, in addition to the SRESA2 emissions. All curves show the global mean temperature simulated by the UVic ESCM.

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    Warming potentials
    Central estimate of the potential for warming of the different fossil-fuel resources in Table 1. The red line indicates the limit of 2.0 °C warming from pre-industrial times agreed to under the Copenhagen Accord. Note, that here we only consider the effects of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. The potential for warming associated with proven Alberta oil-sand reserves is indicated as a barely visible sub-component (pink) of unconventional oil (global). The potential warming of the total Alberta oil-sands oil-in-place (OIP) is shown in black. Estimates of the Total Resource Base (global), and global resources come from Rogner et al. *The carbon–climate response method is not valid for emissions above about 20×1017 g C, so these figures are not valid climate change estimates, but are included for comparison.

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    See our commentary appearing soon in Nature Climate Change (publications)



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