My 2 cents on neutralizing carbon

In BC we have this little program called Carbon Neutral Government. As a compliment to the broader climate action plan suite of policies, CNG, as it is lovingly referred to by gov speakers, was meant to inspire awe and respect for BC’s commitment to climate action leadership (i.e. we’re walking the talk) among other things.

Those other things happen to be what are really worth blogging about.

For a really quick summary of the policy:

  • As of 2010, all provincial public sector organizations measure, reduce, offset and report on their carbon emissions from buildings, fleet and paper. These are emissions that are feasibly measured, at a reasonable cost (you could measure more, but it is difficult and costly).
  • Government supports reducing emissions from operations as much as possible by hiring people to do this work and supplying funds for worthwhile projects.
  • Emissions are measured and reported yearly. Any emissions not reduced are “neutralized” with the purchase of offsets from the Pacific Carbon Trust.
This last bit is the tricky part.

What you’ve probably read most about, given the sharp angled media attention, is the “unfair payment of offset dollars by poor school districts to the private sector.” Don’t be fooled… the emotional plea about schools is the angle AND the substance. Most of this negativity is about getting angry at the current government during the heat of union bargaining… not so much about the policy itself.

For starters, if you look at the trend towards higher energy prices, it is clear that paying attention to energy use (where most of the GHGs come from) is a good idea. In fact, Public Sector organizations like the Vancouver School Board have reduced their energy use by 8 percent or more since 2008  just by managing power on computer work stations. Delta School District is saving $500k per year. The total offset payment for 2010 emissions was $18.2 million. For the entire public sector.

We are preparing organizations that are fundamental to citizens well-being for a low-carbon and energy distraught future (great TEDx YouTube video).

Even if you get past the angry unions and the climate change deniers (the other vocal bunch in the news), you`ll find rants by environmentalists about the “shady character” of carbon offsets. Some call it a “sin tax”, suggesting that somehow, organizations should be able to reduce all their emissions to zero with today’s current technology, or should steer clear of attempting carbon neutrality all together.

These people are failing to have regard for two things:

  1. Reality – most organizations (and by most, I mean practically all) can’t get to zero alone.
  2. The value of a damn good goal.

I agree the term “Carbon Neutral” isn’t 100% honest without a footnote. Really, what we mean is that we are “Neutralizing carbon from the parts of our operation we are measuring.” But that’s a mouth full and “CNG” is a nice label for something more complex… as most policies, or things labelled for that matter, are.

Zero is a good, no, great goal. If we know the public sector emitted 814 thousand tonnes of CO2 in 2010 (after reducing what they could since the policy was announced in 2007), and we can get to zero, we know we have reduced 814 thousand tonnes of CO2. It also creates a clear signal to those operating public sector organizations: there is a cost to inefficiency and carbon pollution – get with the sustainability program.

Right. So that cost is offsets. Why pay for offsets again?

  • Emissions in the atmosphere don’t care where they come from – a tonne is a tonne. There’s nothing sinful about reducing atmospheric CO2.
  • In BC, the projects are helping to foster a green economy, which includes expertise in low carbon technologies and approaches. This means jobs and  a healthier environment.
  • They are produced by the Pacific Carbon Trust, which follows the most rigorous standards we can get our hands on (and BC’s hands reach internationally).
  • They are cheaper than what it would actually cost to reduce emissions to zero, because the low-hanging fruit/cost effective emission reduction opportunities are far greater in the broader economy, than in the public sector.
    •  It might cost a school $25/tonne to purchase offsets, and 10 times as much to undertake a retrofit to get an equivalent amount of reductions. Sure it makes sense to do the retrofit anyways, but we’re still committed to reducing BC’s emissions 33% by 2020, and we can’t afford to do it all at one time.
  • Money talks. Try getting the attention of the Health Authority CEO on the topic of carbon emissions without a clear and relevant incentive…. offsets provide that incentive.

This last point is only in effect in the beginning. What we have seen with CNG, is that people come around pretty quickly once they have measured their emissions and see the opportunity for savings  – not just in offsets, but in energy, which saves money in the long run. Offsets soon are not the only incentive.

In any case, my peers and I have struggled to really communicate why the public sector should pay for offsets. My next post will attempt to describe offsets with an analogy: Paying for your restaurant meal with dish duty.

I’d also be more than happy to converse on this here blog about Carbon Neutral Government  – as I surely did not cover every aspect of the policy and you probably still have more questions (caveat: I’m not the foremost expert, but I have friends who come close.)

In the mean time, please enjoy this fancy video which does a pretty decent job at explaining carbon neutrality and offseting as it was applied to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.

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