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Editorial: Carbon trust’s demise was due

It’s rare that the B.C. Liberals and New Democrats agree on anything, so when both parties wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the Pacific Carbon Trust, that agency was doomed.

It’s rare that the B.C. Liberals and New Democrats agree on anything, so when both parties wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the Pacific Carbon Trust, that agency was doomed.

This week, core review minister Bill Bennett signed the death warrant for the trust. An example of good intentions badly executed, the trust will be mourned by few. The Liberals seem committed to continuing its worthwhile features when it is absorbed by government.

Within two years, five people will be doing the work now done by 18, saving $5.6 million.

The trust was born in 2008 out of former premier Gordon Campbell’s enthusiasm for making B.C. carbon-neutral. Its mission was to buy carbon offsets to make up for emissions produced by schools, hospitals and other public institutions. Those organizations would pay the trust $25 for every tonne of carbon emissions, and the trust would put the money into public or private projects that would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The whole idea of carbon offsets is dubious, but the trust became even more controversial when British Columbians realized that schools were in effect paying fines that were then redirected to private, profit-making companies or to non-profit projects of uncertain value.

In May, then-auditor general John Doyle highlighted the questionable nature of the system by focusing on two projects that totalled $6 million. One gave money to Encana, an energy company with $8.5 billion in annual revenues, and the other supported the purchase of the Darkwoods forest in southeastern B.C. by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Doyle argued that both projects would have gone ahead even without the trust’s contribution, violating one of the fundamental criteria for determining whether carbon offsets are valid.

It created a prolonged scrap between the auditor’s office and the trust, which continued last week when the two appeared before the legislature’s public accounts committee — a day after Bennett announced that the trust would be wrapped up.

After listening for hours to the back and forth, the committee members professed themselves to be stumped. They couldn’t figure out who — if anyone — was right. Nor could ordinary voters, and that was a problem, because they were already suspicious of the arcane construct.

Buying carbon offsets smells to many people like trying to salve our consciences with money. We seem to be trying to buy our way into environmental heaven.

While ordinary voters were hard-pressed to evaluate the complicated accounting of particular projects, they were well able to see the moral issue in the way offsets were applied to public institutions.

At a time when education and health care are scrounging for every dollar, they were forced to shell out millions of dollars that ended up doing nothing to teach children or heal the sick.

The government began changing the system last year, creating a carbon-neutral capital program for schools. Schools still have to pay for their carbon emissions, but instead of being handed to energy companies, the money is pooled and used to fund energy-efficiency projects in schools that will lower their emissions.

The program moves the province toward its goal of being carbon-neutral, but it keeps the money within the educational system, a much more easily understood method. It’s so simple, one wonders why it wasn’t done in the first place.

It has proven so worthwhile that the government plans to roll it out to health authorities and post-secondary institutions.

The push to reduce the carbon footprint of provincial institutions will continue, but by more effective and comprehensible means.

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