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Low Carbon Training Wheels: The Elusive World of Carbon Neutrality

 In April, BC’s Auditor General stirred the climate change debate with his report on the Pacific Carbon Trust.

In the debate that followed, however, the reason why it matters went missing. The driving reality behind the government’s commitment to carbon-neutral government are those ominous three words  - global climate change.

As a civilization, we are failing to act, and in failing we are on track for a 4-5°C increase in temperature - and the last time the world was 3°C warmer the sea level was 25 metres higher.

Most global climate scientists feel a desperate frustration that so many people seem not to be listening. They know the tidal wave approaching, but they are too busy arranging the deck chairs on the beach to do anything about it.

But action is needed, urgently. In 2007, the BC government brought in binding legislation to reduce our emissions by 33% by 2020. Carbon-neutral government is one of many initiatives to achieve the goal. Far more is needed, but that’s another story.

Between them, BC’s government, crown agencies, schools, colleges and hospitals spend $460 million dollars on energy a year, including plenty of planet-warming fossil fuels. The people who manage the public sector were challenged to reduce their emissions, and the government invested $60 million to help. As a result, 70% of public sector organizations have replaced their fleet vehicles with more fuel-efficient models; there has been a 60% reduction in emissions from core government travel; and 69% of all public sector organizations support Green Teams to champion environmental awareness and change in their workplace.

BC’s school districts spend $100 million on energy a year. If they could save just 5%, they could free up $5 million a year to spend on books, sports or music classes. To help, schools were given $10.5 million through the Public Sector Energy Conservation Agreement to invest in energy conservation and switch to renewable energy through initiatives, such as the ground-source heat systems being installed by FortisBC in the Delta School District. They were also given a further $10 million through the Carbon Neutral Capital Program.

To complete the circle of carbon neutrality, they were required to buy carbon offsets from the Pacific Carbon Trust to neutralize the emissions they could not reduce.

What does ‘carbon neutral’ mean? As part of my work I travel quite a bit, so I am responsible for some 20 tonnes of carbon emissions a year. Each year, I tally up the carbon from my activities, and send an appropriate donation to the Solar Electric Light Fund, which helps rural villagers in the developing world install solar PV systems, replacing the use of kerosene in lamps, thereby reducing their carbon emissions. This makes my travel carbon neutral, since I have helped prevent as much carbon from entering the atmosphere as I produce.

The overriding criterion for a purchase like this is that the income must be essential to a project’s financing. It must provide the critical financing that tips the project into viability, and the Auditor General’s chief criticism of the Pacific Carbon Trust was that in 2010, 70% of the Trust’s offsets came two initiatives where this critical factor was in doubt.

Since it was founded the Trust has invested in 35 projects around the province, involving energy efficiency, fuel-switching to renewables, and forest carbon sequestration. Thanks to the income from the sale of carbon offsets, the Canfor Pulp Mill in Prince George was able to upgrade its recovery boiler to decrease natural gas consumption; likewise, the Pan-Pacific Mountainside Hotel in Whistler was able to install a hybrid heating system that reduces emissions by determining the best time to switch between natural gas and electricity.

So were the Trust’s carbon offsets valid, or not?  There are clearly two sides to the argument, and either side could be right; I don’t have the training to know. Even that there is doubt is concerning, however, for if they were invalid, the whole concept of carbon neutrality evaporates into nonsense. 

The NDP is proposing that the Trust be disbanded, and its work be absorbed into the Climate Action Secretariat. As long as the offset funds continue to flow into carbon-reducing activities, this may make sense; instead of being labeled ‘carbon-neutral’, government operations could carry a different label that tells a more honest story, which is they are trying to reduce their emissions. That is actually much better than reducing by 5%, and then writing a check to buy a clean carbon conscience and forget about the other 95%. Maybe “low carbon training wheels” would be a more honest moniker.

What matters, through all this, is that our schools, colleges, hospitals and government operations continue their commitment to reduce their emissions by paying attention to energy conservation and renewable energy. Perhaps they could be held accountable by means of an annual ranking, school by school, Ministry by Ministry.

And the same goes for all of us: we all need to put on our low carbon training wheels.

Guy Dauncey is Founder and Communications Director of the BC Sustainable Energy Association