The Price of Oil - Tar Sands' Impact on Global Agricultural Production

by Karen Wristen

The impacts unchecked climate change could have on global food security might accurately be described as apocalyptic. As detailed in the most recent assessment by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, these include dramatic increases in drought, famine, flooding and disease, as well as equally dramatic losses in biodiversity.

A recent Greenpeace report, Point of No Return, ranked proposals to triple production of oil from Alberta’s tar sands as the fifth greatest threat (after expanded coal production in Australia, China, the US and Indonesia) to arresting the worst potential impacts of climate change. The report states: “By 2020, the tar sands expansion would add annual emissions of 420 million tonnes of CO2, equal to those of Saudi Arabia.”
The Center for Global Diversity (CGD) has measured what the impacts of tripling tar sands oil production could be on global food supply. It estimates that the resultant extreme weather events would lead to significant agricultural productivity losses for more than three billion people living in rural areas in the developing world.

As CGD lead researcher David Wheeler points out: “There is striking asymmetry in regional impacts. Full exploitation of the oil sands deposit by Canada, a high-income country, would have the most severe impacts on regions where the poorest countries are concentrated. Substantially smaller losses are projected for high-income, higher-latitude countries in Europe and North America.”
The worst losses would be felt in Africa, with an average loss of 7% and losses of 10-12.8% in several sub-Saharan countries.

It is somewhat ironic that the projected negative consequences of unchecked exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands would also be disproportionately felt in the very countries whose diasporas were targeted in the Conservative Party’s controversial ethnic riding strategy in the last federal election. More than half the rural poor who will be negatively impacted are in India and China.
Across Asia, more than 2.3 billion people whose very existence depends on agriculture will see an average loss in productivity of 5%.

According to the CGD’s projections, in India (a country Stephen Harper is keen to see invest in the tar sands), where average temperatures are already at or above crop tolerance levels, unchecked climate change could lead to a drop in agricultural productivity of 35-40% by 2080.
Although average agricultural productivity losses across China as a whole will not be as dramatic, productivity in the South Central region of the country is projected to decrease by as much as 15%. However, when direct risk projections are averaged out for decreased agricultural productivity, extreme weather events and sea level rises, China tops the list of countries anticipated to be most negatively impacted by unchecked climate change.

In Latin America (where the Prime Minister is keen to expand free trade) agricultural productivity losses of 5% or more are anticipated in many countries, with the most devastating losses in Paraguay and Bolivia (both 9.1%), Mexico (7.5%), Venezuela (6.8%), Peru (6.5%) and Ecuador (6.1%).

Wheeler concludes: “Put simply, the potential destructive power in Canada’s oil sands exceeds anything modern civilization has witnessed to date. And this case is far from unique: similar losses will be generated by full exploitation of other massive fossil fuel deposits.”


Karen Wristen is the executive director of Living Oceans Society, which works for Healthy Oceans, Healthy Communities.

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