Carbon Non-Neutrality

Balancing rocks Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Zone

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

U.S. President Obama, 25 June 2013

It was good to hear the U.S President make a broad speech on climate change and how he sees the role of the United States vis-a-vis climate change challenges.

It was also good to hear him speak directly to the ongoing controversy regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States.

What was disappointing was the mention of the Keystone XL in conjunction with any notion of carbon neutrality. Even if every single aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline itself were able to meet some definition of being ‘carbon neutral’, i.e. by “achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference“*, and even if the extraction of the oil from the tar sands wasn’t included in the calculation, the fact of the matter is that this pipeline is just one more way of delivering our energy drug of choice – oil – into the U.S. energy cycle.

Rapeseed field

Rapeseed field

Way back when, before 2008, people were still talking about ‘peak oil’ and subsidies abounded for renewable alternatives. If there was one good aspect to the notion of running out of oil, it was the acknowledgement that most alternatives released less CO2 into the atmosphere over the long term.

Then came the financial meltdowns, and the miraculous discoveries of new oil reserves. And now we find ourselves talking more about adaptation and resignation to fossil-fuel use as the main path towards energy independence.

Overall, the President’s speech was promising and left little doubt that under Barack Obama, climate change issues are being taken seriously. It is a welcome call to action from one of the world’s largest economies, and one of its most influential polluters.

Yet there’s still that support of oil as a main source of American energy independence.

I am not neutral when it comes to the use of fossil fuels: ‘Carbon neutral’ refers to a balance that is hard to achieve in the best of circumstances, and impossible when talking about the traditional fossil fuel economy.

Every major federal investment made into the exploitation of this fuel source is an investment that wasn’t made into a better, cleaner, renewable solution.

It’s an investment into the past, not the future.

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

*Definition from Wikipedia. There are many variations of what ‘carbon neutral’ actually means in various contexts, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Transcript of the full speech here.

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