By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun July, 2011
On June 30, the B.C. government announced it had become “carbon neutral.” Do you know
what this means?
If you’re unsure, you’re not alone. Pollsters find most people are. But some vaguely understand that being carbon neutral absolves them from guilt because, by paying someone else to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (especially carbon dioxide), they are somehow no longer causing climate change when taking an airplane. Like paying someone else to do penance, you still emit carbon, but no longer feel guilty about your impact on the Earth’s climate, ecosystems and people.
The carbon neutral industry is growing. There are the guilty parties: individuals and companies who want or must become carbon neutral. They pay money to people who reduce their emissions: “carbon offset providers.” The two parties find each other thanks to “offset brokers,” companies that verify the emission reductions and get a commission from each transaction. Finally, there is government, which sanctions the offset industry and may, as in the case of B.C., even set its own goals for being carbon neutral.
Saving the planet by paying money instead of reducing your emissions sounds too good to be true. Experts say it is, but no one is listening.
The reasons are quite simple. The people who are paid to reduce emissions do things like switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, invest in energy efficiency and plant trees. The problem is that all these activities have been occurring before. In some locations and circumstances, investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, tree planting and other offsets are profitable, and would occur without the offset payment.
The carbon neutral industry claims to have a foolproof system to ensure that all offsets would not otherwise have occurred. But they have a conflict of interest. Independent researchers are much more circumspect. By looking at past subsidy programs that are similar to offsets, and increasingly at existing offset programs, they tend to find that while some offsets are indeed bona fide, others are not. The big message is that even more vigorous verification schemes will not solve this. It is simply impossible for third party verifiers to ever know all the internal factors that will determine the long-run profitability of a particular investment by a so-called offsetter.
This evidence is conveniently ignored by the carbon neutral industry and governments. This in itself is of interest to researchers who, like me, are trying to find out why our societies have been implementing climate policy after climate policy for almost three decades now without hitting any of our greenhouse gas reduction targets. Those who research the ability of humans to self-delude may have something to contribute.
A myth like carbon neutral would be relatively harmless if it were just something that businesses and individuals did on their own. But when adopted as official government policy, it can be harmful. In his climate policy frenzy of 2007-2008, former B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell implemented some policies – like our carbon tax and our zero-emission electricity requirement – that are now recognized among the best climate policies in the world. Unfortunately, he also bought into the idea that government should be carbon neutral.
An excellent recent Sun commentary by Bob Simpson pointed out that B.C.’s policy of a carbon neutral public sector has the perverse effect of diverting our tax dollars from schools and hospitals to purchase offsets from profitable companies like EnCana in order to subsidize their investments to reduce greenhouse gases (“Taxing the public for a private good is a bad idea,” July 4). This is both economically inefficient and unfair. Unlike the rest of us, EnCana does not have to pay the carbon tax on these particular emissions. Instead, our schools and hospitals pay the $25 carbon tax for each tonne of carbon dioxide emissions and then pay an additional $25 per tonne as an offset payment to be carbon neutral, money which goes to EnCana to subsidize its emissions reductions.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your furnace was exempt from the carbon tax, and then a local hospital sent you money to upgrade to a more efficient model? That’s not likely to happen. But, hopefully, what does happen is that the B.C. government abandons the myth of carbon neutrality and gets on with the important task of pricing or regulating all emissions in the province.