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Top UN climate scientist calls oil sands a ‘fundamental mistake’

One of the world’s leading climate scientists said expansion of Alberta’s oil sands is stalling efforts to deal with global warming.

“The oil sands, with all the environmental problems which are’s clear that you’re basically not developing. You’re just using the same fuel for the same old technology,” Thomas Stocker told the Tyee after a Tuesday night lecture in Vancouver. “I think that’s a fundamental mistake.”

The Swiss-born Stocker co-chairs Working Group 1 of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered “one of the most prestigious assignments in the scientific world,” according to a press release.

Stocker’s lecture – at which the only media presence appeared to be the Tyee and a student reporter from UBC – dealt almost entirely with the physical science behind climate change.

He only alluded briefly to the intense political debate surrounding the issue.

But the climate scientist didn’t hold back when the Tyee asked for his opinion on the Alberta government’s plan to control oil sands emissions with a $2 billion investment in carbon capture and storage technology.

“I think that’s sort of a side discussion which obviates the crucial problems,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a viable option.”

Stocker did think that the technology, where carbon emissions are trapped before they escape into the atmosphere and then buried in sealed reservoirs, could be effective for large coal-fired power plants.

But developing the oil sands already requires so much energy, he said, it would be folly to expend even more to capture and bury carbon.

“These are all unsolved questions which I don’t think will really go to the root cause of [climate change],” he told the Tyee.

Yet Stocker noted that Alberta’s fossil fuel industry is just one of many challenges facing efforts to fight global warming.

“Oil sands are not the only issue,” he said. “Anything associated with fossil fuels, be it gas, be it coal, should be questioned and included in legislation that concerns the ultimate goal of reducing world wide emissions.”

Delegates from 180 countries are currently meeting in Bonn, Germany, for two weeks of international climate change talks.

A recent International Energy Agency report said global emissions are still swiftly rising despite 20 years of efforts to control them.

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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