We must defuse our industrial carbon bombs

24 May 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

703 words

Last week I discussed ‘natural’ carbon bombs; human-induced changes in natural systems (such as permafrost thawing, deforestation and loss of peatlands and marshes) that have the potential to result in rapid and large releases of greenhouse gases, or equally rapid and large losses of the carbon sinks that remove carbon from the air.

This week I examine what might be called ‘industrial’ carbon bombs; fossil fuel extraction projects, specifically those that will release at least 1 billion tons of CO2 over their lifetimes. In an important May 11th report, The Guardian noted: “Oil and gas majors are planning scores of vast projects that threaten to shatter the 1.5°C climate goal. If governments do not act, these firms will continue to cash in as the world burns.”

The report is largely based on a study led by Kjell Kühne of Leeds University and published in Energy Policy. The study found there are 425 such projects around the world – 230 are coalmines and 195 are oil and gas fields, many already producing, but with 40 percent yet to start extraction. Between them these 425 projects accounted for 25 percent of global coal production and 45 percent of global oil and gas production in 2019.

Altogether they will emit 1,182 billion tonnes of CO2 over their lifetimes. This will almost triple the 400 billion tonnes of allowable CO2 emissions from 2020 onwards if we are to keep the global temperature rise to under 1.5°C. In fact, these projects alone are more than enough to reach the 1,150 billion tonnes limit on emissions needed to stay below a 2°C rise.

Ninety-three of the coal mines and 76 of the oil and gas projects were not producing in 2020, meaning they could and should be cancelled before they entered production (although doubtless some have begun producing by now). For those already in production Kühne and his colleagues propose they be put in ‘harvest mode’, allowing them to decline naturally by not investing any more money in them. They call this overall approach ‘defusing’ the carbon bombs

Canada, with 12 carbon bombs that could add 39 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, is the seventh largest carbon bomber, behind China, the United States, Russia, Saudi-Arabia, Australia and Qatar. The Guardian notes that together with the US and Australia, Canada is “among the countries with the biggest expansion plans, . . . the highest number of carbon bombs” and also gives “some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.”

A list of Canada’s carbon bombs on the ‘Leave it in the Ground’ website (an NGO co-founded by Kühne) shows they are all in BC or Alberta. The largest by far is the Montney Play oil and gas field in Alberta and B.C., which is projected to produce 13.7 billion tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime, followed by the Murray River Coal Mine in Tumbler Ridge B.C. (8.5 billion tonnes) and the Spirit River oil and gas field in Alberta and B.C. (3.0 billion tonnes).

Other BC carbon bombs include the Gething Coal Mine Coal (2.1 billion tonnes), the Liard Shale oil and gas field (1.2 billion tonnes) and Fording River Coal (1.0 billion tonnes). Not included in the list is the newly approved Bay du Nord oil field off the coast of Newfoundland. While not strictly a carbon bomb – it’s estimated 300 million to 1 billion barrels of oil would result in 130–430 million tonnes of CO2 emissions when consumed – it is nonetheless a sign that the Canadian government does not get it and does not care.

Indeed, that was the focus of a powerful speech from Elizabeth May last week in Parliament, in which she accused the Minister of Environment and Climate Change of losing his moral compass by approving Bay du Nord and supporting the TransMountain expansion.

At a time when the World Meteorological Organization reported this month that several global climate indicator records were set in 2021, this is the worst possible time to be approving new carbon bombs and supporting existing ones with subsidies and other supports. In fact, Canada and BC need to defuse their carbon bombs as soon as possible. To fail to do so is morally reprehensible.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


The problem of natural and industrial carbon bombs

(Published as “When Canada permits loss of marshes, forests, it’s a carbon bomber”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 May 2022

701 words

The concept of a carbon bomb is pretty simple: It’s a potential source of a large amount of CO2 that could be released quite rapidly (or the loss of important carbon sinks), accelerating global heating and taking us beyond the 1.5°C and even the more damaging 2°C targets that have been internationally agreed.

Key to understanding the importance of carbon bombs is the concept of the carbon budget, which is the amount of CO2 that can be released into the atmosphere globally without pushing global heating above 1.5°C. In its August 2021 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to have a 66 percent probability of staying below a 1.5°C rise, we can add no more than 400 billion tonnes of CO2 from the start of 2020 and 1,150 billion tonnes to stay below a 2°C rise.

Globally, we currently emit about 36 billion tonnes annually, so we will exhaust the allowable emissions to keep heating below a 1.5°C rise in “just 11 years if no reductions are made, i.e. the global carbon budget runs out at the end of 2030”, the IPCC stated. We have only 32 years at current emission rates if we are to keep below a 2°C rise.

The term ‘carbon bomb’ was initially applied to what might be called ‘natural’ carbon bombs. I put ‘natural’ in inverted commas because while coming from natural sources – permafrost, forests and peatlands and marshes – these carbon bombs are nonetheless created through human action. More recently it has been expanded to include fossil fuel projects that will emit more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of the project; together they have the potential to take us well beyond these targets.

Human-induced global heating – which is more marked at the poles – results in thawing of permafrost, releasing large volumes of CO2 and – even worse – the potent greenhouse gas methane. The amount of carbon locked up in northern permafrost is worrying. In a July 2011 article about the Polaris Project, a Woods Hole Research Center project looking at climate change in the Arctic, Dallas Murphy noted “there are very few mechanisms in nature that are capable – on short timescales – of transferring huge stocks of carbon from the land into the atmosphere.  Permafrost thawing heads the short list.”

In a 2019 review for the NOAA’s Arctic Program, Ted Schuur, a leading permafrost expert, noted these soils contain roughly 1.5 trillion tons of organic carbon, “about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere”. 
Moreover, about two-thirds of this carbon – 1,000 billion tons – is within the top 3 metres of the soil, so it is likely to be readily affected by thawing.
He reports that these regions are already releasing between 0.3 and 0.6 billion tons of carbon annually, which is equivalent to roughly 1 – 2 billion tons of CO2. Ongoing and indeed increasing global heating will likely make this worse.

Other ‘natural’ carbon bombs include the release of carbon from deforestation together with the loss of the carbon sink potential of the intact forest, as well as the loss through development of peatland and marshes, which are important carbon sinks. Just last week the Cowichan- Koksilah salt marsh was featured in this newspaper. Nina Grossman and Hina Alam reported that a recent study led by UVic graduate student Tristan Douglas found the estuary “seizes and stores double the carbon dioxide of a 20-year-old Pacific Northwest forest of the same size.” 

But Douglas also warned that “the world has lost about 70 per cent of mangroves and about 30 to 40 per cent of all marshlands and sea grasses in the past 100 years, and will lose another 40 per cent if it’s a ‘business as usual approach’ in the next century.”

So when Canada permits deforestation or the loss of peatlands and marshes to development, it is in effect being a ‘carbon bomber’, not to mention adding the vast amounts of CO2 and methane that will be released from permafrost in the North that is already starting to thaw. So much for ‘natural’ carbon bombs; next week I will focus on the fossil fuel carbon bombs, where Canada is a big and bad player.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy