The Darkwoods forest near Nelson.

Carbon controversy opens eyes

If you’d asked me a week ago what I thought of Nelson’s choice not to voluntarily buy carbon credits to offset its 2012 CO2 emissions...

If you’d asked me a week ago what I thought of Nelson’s choice not to voluntarily buy carbon credits to offset its 2012 CO2 emissions, I would have told you everyone should be outraged about this.

Our city council talks incessantly about climate change, and for good reason. Increased storm and fire activity that result from climate change are a major concern for every community. The local governments that buy carbon offsets are theoretically helping slow the onset of climate change so they won’t have to pay the cost of dealing with its effects.

I would have thought this was something Nelson would get behind. Indeed, our municipality was one of the first to sign on to the Climate Action Charter in 2007 and in 2010 the city released a Corporate Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan that clearly states its intention of buying carbon credits to offset its 2012 emissions.

But when it came time to hand over the cash — it would have cost around $27,000 for the city to buy enough credits to be considered carbon neutral — the city got cold feet.

I could hardly believe my ears when, at a committee of the whole meeting last month, one city councillor claimed to not even know what a carbon credit was, and even the self proclaimed tree huggers on council didn’t raise concerns about Nelson being one of the few Kootenay municipalities to forgo offsetting.

I was even more surprised that after the Star published a front page story about the city’s decision (“Council passes on carbon offset purchase,” March 22) the paper didn’t receive a single letter to the editor on the issue. Even the online comment section below the story was silent. Nobody seemed to care.

At the time I thought everyone had their head in the sand. Then the BC auditor general, John Doyle, released his report on the provincial efforts to be carbon neutral and I finally understood why carbon offsets aren’t all they’re cracked up to be — at least they aren’t right now.

The 36-page report claims the BC government spent some $6 million purchasing carbon credits to support projects — including the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s purchase of the Darkwoods forest along the south arm of Kootenay Lake — which would have gone ahead without that financial incentive.

The auditor points out that the Nature Conservancy leveraged federal funds to purchase the forest and by doing so was legally obligated to protect it. The Nature Conservancy might argue that it also needed the revenue from the carbon sales to move ahead with the project, but the auditor calls the organization a “free rider,” accusing it of taking money for something it would have done anyway. The auditor also believes the project overestimated how much greenhouse gas it prevented from entering the atmosphere to increase the number of carbon credits it could sell.

This is the project that Carbon Neutral Kootenays bought its offsets from, and what Nelson would have been supporting if it had bought offsets this year. So, now the city is looking rather wise for keeping its money for itself.

Mayor John Dooley says the money the city would have spent on carbon offsets will instead be spent reducing its own corporate emissions. And I have to wonder if the province would have been better off having done the same.

The same year BC spent millions on offsets, its own carbon emissions increased by six per cent over the previous year (which the province blames on colder average temperatures across the province). That money could have been spent putting double pane windows in hospitals and upgrading heating systems in schools to reduce both energy costs and CO2 emissions.

With an election approaching, the Liberals will probably take some flak for their carbon neutral government scheme. Pundits are already saying the initiative should be scrapped. But I disagree.

I’m no policy expert, but I think carbon trading makes a lot of sense. It offers private business an economic incentive to invest in energy saving technologies and could be a powerful tool for reducing carbon emissions. But the standard for the projects that qualify to sell carbon credits needs to be much higher than what is currently slipping past the regulators.

The carbon economy in this province is only just developing. Sure, it’s experiencing some growing pains, but I hope it’s here to stay — because climate change certainly isn’t going anywhere.

 

Sam Van Schie is a reporter at the Star. She can be reached via email at reporter@nelsonstar.com

 

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