Frustration with British Columbia’s carbon offsets policy of diverting public money into private projects has prompted calls for an end to the practice from school trustees across the province.
Since 2010, B.C. government policy has required public institutions like schools and hospitals to be carbon neutral—meaning that in order to reduce their carbon footprint they have to buy so-called carbon offsets from Pacific Carbon Trust, a Crown corporation.
The PCT in turn invests these public funds into a variety of private sector companies to subsidize energy-efficiency projects, including natural gas provider Encana Corporation, one of Canada’s biggest polluters; Lafarge Cement; and forest companies Canfor and TimberWest.
Michael McEvoy, the president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, calls the policy “a misguided scheme.”
“Trustees around the province are very concerned about our environment, they’re very concerned about the carbon emissions that all of us are putting into the atmosphere, but the way to solve that is not to be, in effect, taxing schools,” he says.
“This is money that the public has invested in public education and it’s being shifted to private entities like Encana for example, a large multi-national company, and we think that’s wrong. It’s essentially public money helping to underwrite the cost of Encana undertaking carbon emission reduction.”
Last year, the policy cost the Vancouver school district $405,000, Surrey $497,000, and Nanaimo $125,000, to name a few examples.
McEvoy says it would make more sense to return those monies to cash-strapped school boards to enable them to fund their own costly carbon-reduction projects and retrofits.
“We’re not eligible for the funding the way this scheme has been set up,” he says.
“It’s difficult to envision how we can [make schools more energy efficient] when money is being taken away from us and shifted to the private sector. This makes no sense. These are public dollars for public infrastructure and our public education system—they should remain there.”
At $25 a tonne for offsets, the carbon neutral policy is also eating into already tight health care budgets. The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority alone paid out $1.15 million last year.
More than $4 million in funding for public education went to the private sector in 2010, according to McEvoy. In all, public institutions spent $18.2 million to offset 730,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions last year.
A First in North America
B.C. became carbon neutral in June—a first for any province or state in North America. Since 2008, the PCT has funded 247 energy projects in schools, hospitals, colleges, universities and other government buildings across the province.
Once complete, those projects are expected to reduce carbon output by 36,500 tonnes, create 500 jobs, and save organizations about $12.6 million in annual energy costs, according to a PCT release.
In June, the PCT announced it had purchased 84,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emission offsets from Encana—“a reduction equivalent to taking about 22,050 cars off the road for one year.”
The purchase helped develop a technique that involves using natural gas instead of nitrogen as a drilling lubricant at an Encana project in northwestern B.C. Using this method can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per well drilled, according to the PCT.
Money collected has also subsidized upgrades to a Lafarge cement plant so that it could burn wood waste instead of coal; paid for energy-conserving upgrades at greenhouses in the Fraser Valley; and funded a landfill project that will convert methane into energy, among others.
However, the government is under increasing pressure to end the practice of forcing public institutions to pay to achieve a zero carbon footprint—an expense that rises every year.
Even prominent climate change expert Mark Jaccard, a professor of environmental economics at Simon Fraser University, has criticized the policy. He says a carbon neutral public sector diverts money from “useful programs” and does nothing to improve the environment.
“Saving the planet by paying money instead of reducing your carbon footprint sounds too good to be true. Experts say it is, but no one is listening,” he wrote in a Vancouver Sun op-ed.
Both the B.C. School Trustees Association and the New Democrats are calling on the government to end the practice of redirecting money earmarked for schools to big industry. Instead, they want those funds used for emission-reducing projects within school districts.
Changes may indeed be on the way. Environment Minister Terry Lake recently acknowledged that the policy is controversial, and said it may be possible to set up a fund within the PCT that’s dedicated to hospitals and schools to help them reduce their carbon footprint.
McEvoy is cautiously optimistic.
“I think it’s encouraging some of the words that the environment minister has spoken to date, but until we see it in writing, and until there is a firm commitment to do something that allows our money to stay in these public institutions like public schools, we will continue to press the case.”