B.C. continues to purchase carbon offsets, total now more than $50 million
If you thought the controversial B.C. Crown corporation Pacific Carbon Trust was gone, you would only be partly right.
The agency was eliminated in 2013, along with it its staff of 18.
But the work the trust carried out – acting as a broker of carbon credits – continues inside government, in the B.C. Ministry of Environment’s Climate Action Secretariat.
In 2010, the B.C. government starting making schools, hospitals and universities reduce their net carbon emissions to zero, and as a result the public institutions were forced to pay to have outside projects reduce carbon emissions in their stead. These reductions are often called carbon credits or offsets.
By the end of 2014, British Columbia had paid out $53.4 million to buy these carbon offsets from major forest companies such as Canfor and Interfor, energy companies such as ARC Resources, and increasingly from a First Nation consortium whose traditional territory encompass the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s central coast, according to data assembled by The Vancouver Sun.
In 2014 alone, the province purchased $10.2 million in carbon offsets from the Great Bear initiative.
In response to questions from The Sun, the B.C. government declined to say how much it had paid for carbon offsets it had purchased in 2015 and to whom, saying it was not obligated to do so until the middle of this year under law.
The purchase of the carbon offsets has allowed the province to declare itself “carbon neutral” since 2010.
Under the program, the province put a $25 a tonne price on the carbon emissions of the schools, hospitals and universities to provide an incentive for them to reduce emissions. (The carbon offsets from industry have been purchased at an average price of less than $12 a tonne).
From 2010 to 2014, schools, hospital and universities have reduced emissions by 7.4 per cent or just under 63,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, according to government data.
However, that reduction, equivalent to removing about 13,200 passenger cars from the road, is a drop in the bucket of the province’s total carbon emissions, less than one tenth of one per cent.
And there are some public sector emissions under B.C.’s rules that have been deemed exempt from having to be offset — such as carbon emissions from school buses and the B.C. Transit fleet. Emissions from those exempt categories have increased about 20,000 tonnes between 2010 and 2014.
And there remains questions about the legitimacy of the carbon offsets that government buys from industry, highlighted by a 2012 Vancouver Sun investigation and a highly critical 2013 report from B.C.’s auditor general, which was dismissed by the B.C. Liberal government.
The B.C. Liberal government has shown no intent to dismantle its carbon offset system, and B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said there are no plans to make any changes.
“I would hold this up as a really good example of how to take incentives and turn them into benefits that are pretty direct,” Polak said in an interview.
She is referring to the $14.5 million a year the province provides to schools, hospitals and universities to help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In essence, the B.C. government is giving back money they collected from the $25 a tonne of emissions, but it has to be directed to emission-reduction projects.
NDP environment critic George Heyman says the province’s carbon trading scheme is a shell game.
“The real question here is why are they taking additional money from schools and hospitals instead of letting them upgrade and retrofit their buildings for energy conservation directly,” he said.
Asked why the province does not simply let the public institutions keep the money, which they could plow into projects to reduce carbon emissions, particularly given hospitals and colleges are already paying a $30 a tonne carbon tax as well, Polak said the $25 a tonne additional charge provides a needed incentive to change behaviour.
Asked why this additional $25 charge was then not applied to the private sector as well, where there are much larger gains to be had in emission reductions, Polak said that question may be answered in the province’s updated climate change plan expected to be released this year.
After shutting down the Pacific Carbon Trust in 2013, and moving its operations into the secretariat, the B.C. Liberal government said it would save $5.6 million a year and use only five government workers.
In response to questions from The Sun, the Environment Ministry said that no more than five positions are used to carry out the carbon offset work and that “administrative efficiencies” had been achieved. However, in a written response the ministry did not answer whether savings of $5.6 million had been realized.
Most of the emissions from the public sector comes from buildings (just under 80 per cent) and from vehicle fleets (just under 20 per cent).
Money provided to schools, hospitals and universities have mostly been used to retrofit buildings, largely for items such as new boilers for their heating system. In 2014, schools received funding to replace more than a dozen boilers.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has been highly critical of the Pacific Carbon Trust, and continues to have concerns of the program now being run within government.
B.C. spokesman Jordan Bateman called the carbon system a farce, saying the program is not about reducing emissions but a public relations exercise so the government can call itself carbon neutral.
He noted that replacing boilers sounded like routine maintenance.
More fundamentally, he said most people would not consider schools and hospitals priorities for reducing carbon emissions, said Bateman. “The whole program seems really ridiculous.”
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