Environment minister Terry Lake addressing a conference in Victoria.

Lake defends public spending on carbon offsets

Cash diverted from schools, hospitals and universities to offset emissions

Environment minister Terry Lake says refinements to B.C.’s climate-neutral policy are possible but he gave no sign the province might ditch controversial rules that force cash-strapped school districts, health authorities and universities to pay for carbon offsets that end up in corporate hands.

The province is under growing pressure from critics to abandon the practice of forcing public sector agencies to buy their way to a zero carbon footprint, which extends to municipalities in 2012.

Lake said the offsets have achieved real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

“We want to be a carbon-neutral government,” he said in an interview. “It has to be meaningful. It has to be real.”

But he said he’s prepared to consider revisions, including a program so offsets school districts need to buy can go back into conserving energy at schools, rather than leaving the education system.

“There’s always room for improvement,” he said.

The Lower Mainland’s two health authorities together spent more than $2 million on carbon offsets in 2010, while universities and colleges in the region put in another $2.5 million.

Surrey paid the most of all school districts, sinking nearly $500,000 into claiming carbon neutrality as it simultaneously struggled to cut costs to balance its budget. School boards in Vancouver, Coquitlam, Richmond, Burnaby, Langley, North Vancouver and Delta all had to put up at least $100,000.

The money goes to the Pacific Carbon Trust (PCT), a Crown corporation that then gives the cash to private firms that can cut their emissions, usually through trust-subsdized improvements to their operations.

Money collected so far has subsidized upgrades to Lafarge’s Richmond cement plant so it could burn wood waste instead of more carbon-intensive coal, creating an offset to sell.

Similarly, greenhouses in the Fraser Valley have been able to buy energy-conserving equipment or outfit for wood-fuel burning so that the resulting carbon reductions could be counted as offsets for the PCT.

The trust was launched by then-Premier Gordon Campbell in 2008 with $75 million initial seed money, a key plank in helping B.C. cut overall emissions one third by 2020.

All public agencies must measure, reduce and offset greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, vehicle fleets and paper use.

The province says business upgrades to cut emissions must be permanent, quantifiable and go beyond business-as-usual spending to qualify.

Subsidies typically are worth five per cent of the project, say officials, who claim they leverage up to 20 times more conservation spending by the receiving business.

Lake said he hopes to see the paying agencies continue to cut their own carbon emissions and thereby reduce how much they need to spend on $25-a-tonne offsets in future years.

Most cities (Burnaby is one notable local exception) voluntarily signed on to be carbon neutral under B.C.’s Climate Action Charter. Those cities get a rebate of what they spend on B.C.’s carbon tax to assist them with their emission reduction efforts.

Because cities aren’t legislated to buy solely from the PCT, they may set up their own mechanisms with more freedom to inject the investments right into their own operations or at least within their civic borders.

Lake said he’s prepared to work with cities pursuing that option.

“It may be a community project which is sequestering carbon through tree planting or it may be a district energy system where they’re going from fossil fuel use to using biomass,” he said.

NDP environment critic Rob Fleming calls the Pacific Carbon Trust model a giant system to funnel government tax subsidies to business.

“It’s a direct transfer of public service dollars for health care, education and other services going towards some of the largest polluters in the province,” he said.

Fleming noted energy giant Encana is one of the firms selling offsets through the PCT, as does the Westin Resort in Whistler, which invested in an upgraded heating system.

“Once upon a time the BC Liberals said they were against subsidies of taxpayer dollars to businesses.”

In all, B.C.’s public sector spent $18.2 million last year to offset 730,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions they weren’t otherwise able to reduce or avoid.

The B.C. School Trustees Association earlier this year demanded the province amend the rules so offset money from school districts can go solely to local projects and retrofits.

“The public would be perplexed, as are we, to discover the government hands over these public school funds to private infrastructure projects, including luxury hotels, resorts and the energy corporation Encana,” BCSTA president Michael McEvoy said.

 

Lower Mainland offset purchases in 2010

UBC: $1.52 million

Vancouver Coastal Health Authority: $1.15 million

Fraser Health Authority: $934,000

Surrey School District: $497,000

Vancouver School District: $406,000

SFU: $444,000

BCIT: $246,000

Coquitlam School District: $233,500

Richmond School District: $182,000

Burnaby School District: $150,000

Langley School District: $146,000

North Vancouver School District: $115,000

Delta School District: $100,000

Abbotsford School District: $96,000

Maple Ridge School District: $88,000

Vancouver Community College: $75,000

Kwantlen Polytechnic University: $62,000

Chilliwack School District: $56,000

Capilano University: $54,000

New Westminster School District: $50,000

Mission School District: $48,000

Langara College: $44,000

West Vancouver School District: $39,000

Emily Carr University of Art and Design: $21,500