TORONTO—Last weekend, more than 40,000 Americans gathered outside the White House to demand that U.S. President Barack Obama reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Why? Because the Canadian government has failed to control the reckless expansion of the tar sands. With this mounting pressure, it’s time for a real conversation about what credible action would look like for Canada.
Instead, what we’ve seen so far has been little more than empty promises, massive public relations spending, and taking credit for the hard work of provinces to reduce pollution. 
This is the first in a three-part series that will delve into what needs to occur to reposition Canada as an environmental leader and reduce controversy around the tar sands. Solutions are too frequently lost in the media frenzy on this issue, where stories often pit those who supposedly want to ‘shut down’ the tar sands against those who want to ‘burn it all,’ and portray those who want to protect the environment as not having concern for jobs. This brinkmanship, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. 
There are meaningful actions that Canada can take today that would address climate change, clean up the environment and harness good jobs in the low-carbon economy. These actions fit into three categories: decreasing carbon emissions, spurring the transition to clean energy and reducing the local environmental impacts of tar sands extraction. Today, I’ll discuss reducing carbon through credible climate change policies.
First off, let’s take the climate issue out of the realm of political football and into reality: society’s addiction to oil has become dangerous. If we continue to use oil like we do today, we will burn past catastrophic climate tipping points in just over a decade. The consequences of this include mass migrations as people lose their livelihoods, water and food shortages, devastating floods and storms here at home, and the loss of species and ecosystems. Climate change, left unchecked, will challenge the very essence of what we imagine when we think of our vast and beautiful country. This isn’t about pot shots across the border. It’s about what type of planet we’re passing onto our kids.
And we’re not disputing that Canada will produce and use oil for some time to come, and it will provide economic benefit. The question at hand—and the source of much of the controversy—is the pace and scale of the expansion of the oil industry, as well as whether we’re investing in the shift to alternatives to oil. 
If, as a country, we’re to do our fair share to address global warming, we have no choice but to start with the tar sands. Growth in tar sands emissions will cancel out every other effort to tackle greenhouse gas pollution in Canada over the next seven years. 
In fact, if the oil industry gets its way, tar sands emissions will at least double from 48 megatonnes (MT) of greenhouse gas pollution in 2010 to 104 MT in 2020. This is clearly the wrong direction, and that doesn’t even account for the pollution generated when the oil is actually burned. Meaningful action means lower absolute emissions from the sector.  
As a wealthy country with a strong tradition of democracy, Canada should be a leader when it comes to tackling climate change. But, we’re failing to take the problem seriously at a national level. 
The much touted federal coal regulations will have little impact for decades. The truth is that emissions from coal are going down because Ontario—not the federal government—has done the heavy lifting in that sector by totally eliminating coal power by the end of this year. 
There are currently no rules to limit carbon pollution from the oil sector, the country’s fastest growing source of global warming pollution. We hear they’re coming, but we’ve heard that before from four different environment ministers in seven years.
Any new rules put forward—by the federal government, the Alberta government, or industry—need to be judged for their effectiveness using one simple metric: Will they force total tar sands emissions to be capped and then shrink, rather than continue to grow?
If they keep going up, the rules don’t pass muster. It’s that simple. The atmosphere doesn’t care about intensity targets per barrel of oil, technology funds or how carbon is reduced. The bottom line is that total emissions must begin to decline as soon as possible—globally and in the tar sands. And if that doesn’t happen, the controversy over the tar sands will continue to grow.
There are many ways to move meaningfully on carbon pollution. The long and short of it is that polluters need to pay. We cannot allow the oil industry to continue using our atmosphere as a free dumping ground. Ideally, Canada needs a price on carbon, but in the meantime the government could start by proving it’s serious about oil and gas regulations. And that means implementing regulations that bring pollution down rather than letting pollution continue to soar.  
We need to have a reasonable debate about how much oil production is enough, and how to meaningfully tackle climate change. So far, that conversation isn’t happening. 
Yet the good news is that we can meet the litmus test for new carbon rules (absolute emissions go down not up) and create jobs in the clean energy economy. We don’t need to choose between jobs and fighting climate change. More on that next week.
Gillian McEachern
 is the campaigns director with Environmental Defence Canada.…