In countries with weaker political and environmental governance frameworks, the consequences of tar sands expansion are likely to be devastatingThe EU should assume its responsibility as a global standard-setter and send a clear signal discouraging high-carbon technologies like tar sands, before they are locked-in to our market supply chain, says Friends of the Earth…
Highly polluting sources of fuel, such as tar sands, must be cleaned up or kept out of Europe. For, they are the dirtiest source of transport fuels and will undermine Europe's ability to reach its climate ambitions. And they have detrimental impacts on the environment and communities in many developing countries. Last month, European governments failed to reach agreement on key climate legislation - the European Union Fuel Quality Directive. The stalemate means the law, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels by 6 per cent before 2020, is now likely to be decided in June. This gives Europe a second chance to keep tar sands out.
European countries that are home to big oil companies with interests in tar sands - such as the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands - gave in to Canadian government and oil industry lobbying and chose to abstain from voting rather than support the EU Commission proposal. As a result, we missed a chance to keep the dirtiest sources of fuels out of Europe and to send a message that the continent is still a global leader on climate change. The profit-led interests of the oil industry prevailed over the wider public good.
So what is the core of the disagreement? The directive is a proposal to label oil derived from tar sands as producing 22 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions, on average, than conventional oil. This is due to the extra energy needed to extract bitumen from the bedrock and refine it. Canada is currently the only major centre of tar sands production and, together with the oil industry, it has been vehemently lobbying the EU and its members states to reject this proposal. Its fear is that the law could set a global policy precedent and lead to other countries also branding tar sands oil as dirtier and costlier than other fossil fuels.
The EU decision comes at a critical time. Europe's addiction to fossil fuels, combined with the decline of conventional oil production, has led to heavy investment by the oil industry in unconventional oil, such as tar sands and oil shale - around the globe. New deposits of tar sands and other unconventional oil have been discovered or are already being exploited in countries such as Venezuela, Madagascar, Republic of the Congo, Russia, Jordan, Nigeria and Angola. One new frontier for tar sands development is Africa, a region already highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Apart from making a mockery of climate protection, tar sands production in Canada has resulted in serious damage to local communities and the environment - including destruction of boreal forest and increased pollution, which is impacting on the health and livelihoods of First Nations communities. In countries with weaker political and environmental governance frameworks, the consequences of tar sands expansion are likely to be devastating. In Africa, considering the continent's experiences with conventional oil extraction over the last decades, tar sands - development is also likely to seriously hamper the achievement of Millennium Development Goals.
If the EU is serious about tackling the interlinked climate and energy challenges faced by European consumers, investors and the private sector - not to mention supporting sustainable development in developing countries - it should assume its responsibility as a global standard-setter and send a clear signal discouraging high-carbon technologies like tar sands, before they are locked-in and start supplying our market.
Europe can do this by not giving in to Canadian and oil industry pressure on the directive and withholding its political and financial assistance to tar sands development; particularly, in developing countries with weak governance frameworks. Europe should also work out a wider policy response to prevent further climate and local environmental and social damage from all forms of unconventional oil production. Last week's stalemate means European environmental ministers will most likely be asked to decide on the future of the EU directive when they meet in June. Their vote will demonstrate - one way or another - the real strength of European commitment to lead on climate change and global development. Darek Urbaniak is extractive industries campaigner at Friends of the Earth EuropeThis article originally appeared on PublicServiceEurope.com: Tar sands - a threat to Europe, Africa and the world