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Environment

As Paris climate talks approach, Keystone could act as a spur

Wikimedia / Shannonpatrick17

US President Obama announced that he would not allow the Keystone XL Pipeline to be built in the US on Friday, November 6.

This adds a decisive new chapter to the 7-year battle over the pipeline that, if built, would snake through the heartland of the US shipping 800,000 barrels of oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico each day.

It became a hugely symbolic struggle in the US, taking on much more political weight than the estimated environmental and economic impacts would suggest.

In reality, rejecting the pipeline is not suddenly going to stop climate change. Building the pipeline would not suddenly revive the economy.

By the numbers, the jobs and pollution created by the pipeline would be trivial in a national and global sense. But the timing of this decision could have global impact.

Leaders from more than 190 countries are gathering for the UN Conference on Climate Change--or COP21--in Paris in a few weeks. Killing the pipeline may spur bold environmental action by other nations.

Many developing countries think it’s unfair for the US to be calling for carbon reductions when it is still the biggest greenhouse gas emitter (per capita) in the world and has cumulatively polluted more than most countries combined.  

Fossil fuels have enabled economic development all around the world, so why shouldn’t poor nations be allowed to burn some in order to grow their economies?

Because of this stance, many onlookers are nervous about what COP21 will achieve. The non-binding proposals that have been submitted by many countries do not go far enough to reduce emissions.

Many countries are adopting a wait-and-see approach: they’re waiting to see if other countries are bold enough to dramatically tackle climate change.

Although the Keystone Pipeline is not “dramatically tackling climate change,” it has become so symbolically powerful in the US that some countries may see it as a sign that the US is ready to get serious about emissions.

The US, along with China, has to lead in the weeks ahead. Maybe laying the rejected Keystone Pipeline at the feet of leaders around the world will be enough to get the conversation moving in a positive direction.

It’s hard to tell.

One thing I do know is that many environmentalist groups have been rejuvenated by the decision. After years of struggle, this feels like a tangible victory and will no doubt rally new advocates and resources to protect our planet.

Here’s a sense of how they’re feeling: