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Prevention Guide
Offsets: Campbell government needs to support localized efforts
The B.C's Climate Action Secretariat makes its pitch to enviros and the rest of us
By Don Elzer
This past month the Campbell government’s climate action secretariat convened a meeting with environmental groups to discuss the government's proposed carbon offset regulations. The government expects to be purchasing between 600,000 to 900,000 tonnes of offsets each year to compensate for its greenhouse gas emissions. But those purchases - investments in projects that reduce such emissions - could be controversial as the administration insists on including reforestation activities like the "incremental tree planting initiatives" mentioned in its recent throne speech.
Late last year the premier's special climate action advisor Mark Jaccard questioned the emissions impact of those activities and was quoted by The Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer saying, "Was the planted tree in Guatemala truly an additional investment in reducing GHGs or would another tree have sprouted eventually in that spot anyway? Does the planted tree represent a permanent increase in biosphere sequestration or carbon or will it be cut down in 10 years' time?"

The purpose of the meeting appears to be one where the government is trying to clear its conscience with environmentalists who are questioning the logic of the governments Greenhouse Gas Reductions Target Act. The governments Emissions Offset Intentions Paper presently sets the criteria for offsetting projects so that it can meet the targets outlined in the Act.

At least that’s the idea, so far.

No doubt the questions surfacing at the workshop will be reflected by what kind of a crowd was invited to the table.

It will be interesting to see what sort of questions and answers surface at the end of the day, like:

“What’s a carbon offset?”

“Well, we really don’t know yet”

In BC we have placed the cart before the horse on this one for sure. We are without a real idea as to why we are entering the wild west.

In North America, that’s what the carbon offset industry is right now, a land without law and order, but at the same time full of opportunity.

The Campbell government has a unique chance to create the playing field, to create an investment climate that considers climate action, but also considers community and social needs. Such a vision appears hard to find in the mix of bureaucracy and financial windfalls for government and corporate coffers.

In this province investment into offsets to combat climate change may take the form of more green energy projects that export electricity south of the border, which may have good intentions, but will also ignore people and natural habitat right here at home.

The problem that the government may be facing is an emerging control of carbon offset criteria that is central to interests outside of British Columbia.

Companies holding carbon offset portfolios presently trade on various exchanges, one being the Chicago Climate Exchange, another being the Montreal Climate Exchange. Both of these exchanges are linked to protocols that audit portfolios as to whether they are actually helping to reduce carbon emissions, however the auditing structure seems somewhat nebulous and one might suspect designed in favor of certain corporate interests.

In 2007, consumers and corporations in the US spent $330 million on offsets, but this amount might dwarf the potential as the US congress will be debating competing carbon-reduction plans this summer. The leading bill up for debate is the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act which would require companies to reduce their carbon emissions a full 70 percent by 2050 and will more than likely serve as the core legislation that Canada will use as a foundation to a similar carbon reduction law.

The Lieberman-Warner bill will allow companies to use carbon-offsets to achieve up to 30 percent of their reductions. Other proposals to congress allow a much higher percentage of carbon-offsetting.

When adopted into law the federally regulated offset market will grow to 40 times what it is today and could amount to over $13 billion in the US alone.

The future under offsetting has governments creating a guidance framework, and handing the problem off to corporations who then invest in their own version of problem solving – or not.

For the Campbell government the challenge remains, does it want to carry us into a globalized version of carbon offsetting or a localized one?

Under the globalized version, already questionable practices are surfacing. One of the most potent contributors to harmful emissions remains industrial pollutants such as hydro fluorocarbons known as HFC-23. Between 2003 and 2012, carbon-offset investment will pay $6 billion to refrigeration companies to incinerate 43,000 tons of HFC-23 which will actually cost them $150 million to burn, at the end of the day those refrigeration companies and carbon-offset management firms will turnover a profit of well over $5 billion.

The Campbell government needs to order up some philosophical principles that link action on climate change with a mix of humanitarian and habitat protection efforts here in BC, and to do that it must help launch a made in BC version of the Chicago Climate Exchange but instead of promoting big international portfolios, promotes community-driven offset portfolios. Such an exchange could include a Carbon Offset Index that offers everyone a chance to see if such offsets are having a positive impact on climate action.

In Greater Vancouver alone there are nearly 2,600 people homeless, which represents a 19 per cent increase over the number counted in 2005, and more than double the number counted in 2002. Throughout the province there is a shortage of housing for workers; there is deteriorating housing in many rural areas including First Nations reserves; we are home to dying forest that could be one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions on the planet.

Our actions on such challenges and those of climate change seem questionable.

And we are certainly running out of time.


Don Elzer writes and comments about the future, current affairs, lifestyle and the natural world. He is a director of the Watershed Intelligence Network publishers of The Monster Guide, which can be found at
He can also be reached by email at: