September 05, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

Legally Green 

Five years into B.C.'s experiment in legislated carbon neutrality author Christopher Pollen investigates what the payback is so far

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY TIM ENNIS/NCC - Lichen-covered trees

Imagine a vast green swath of pristine forest, wetland and lakefront, where the owner gets paid to simply let the trees grow. Like a green ATM machine, the forests dispense money.

Such a place exists today in B.C., across 55,000 wild hectares in the Kootenays. It's called Darkwoods, and when the project was announced in June last year, it was the largest carbon-offset forestry deal ever concluded in North America. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), which had bought the land in advance of the deal, earned over $4 million on the sale of carbon offsets.

From concept to close, the agreement took more than three years to finalize, during which time a small group of highly specialized project developers, verifiers and auditors set to work putting a value on the carbon stored in Darkwoods' standing forests. The carbon stored in the leaves, wood and roots of the trees was ultimately packaged into financial instruments known as carbon offsets — in effect putting a dollar value on each metric tonne of carbon stored in the trees.

Darkwoods is one of about 20 carbon offset projects created in B.C. to date, many of which have been made possible by legislation requiring the B.C. public service to be "carbon neutral" by 2010. And while this legislation has lowered emissions and nurtured the growth of a made-in-B.C. industry specializing in creating carbon offsets, it has also stirred up controversy that refuses to go away.

What exactly is a carbon offset? The example of Darkwoods sheds some light on an arcane question. If a polluter releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it can "offset" those emissions by paying to guarantee that an equal amount of carbon remains stored safely somewhere else, in this case in Kootenay forests protected for this express purpose. While the polluter may not have actually reduced its own emissions, by buying a Darkwoods carbon offset, an equivalent amount of carbon has been stored somewhere else. Offsetting emissions from Darkwoods works in lowering B.C.'s total emissions contributing to global climate change, the theory goes, because the geographical location of the emissions saving is irrelevant — just as long as the project creates real and permanent reductions in the quantity of emissions entering the atmosphere.

British Columbia is at the forefront of this carbon offset "industry" — a cluster of emerging expertise required to evaluate, measure, audit and validate carbon offsets of sale in the province — largely because of a policy created in 2007 that made it mandatory for the B.C. public service to reduce its carbon emissions to zero. Getting to zero is largely a paper accounting exercise, where public bodies like schools and hospitals must first reduce their real emissions from things like paper and heating as much as they can, and then pay to offset the rest. And while it is impossible to run a school or hospital without burning a lot of fossil fuel, legislated "carbon neutrality" is technically possible if the public sector can "offset" the emissions they cannot eliminate — by buying offsets representing saved carbon emissions elsewhere in B.C., in places like Darkwoods.

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