September 10, 2010 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Race to Zero 

Are carbon offsets costing Whistler more than they need to?

It's Feb. 18 and a packed audience of environmentalists and politicians is chatting excitedly at the Whistler Public Library.

It's the middle of the Olympics and the book stacks have been moved aside for Whistler Canada Olympic House, a place for the municipality to host dignitaries and VIPs while they're in town for the world's biggest athletic event.

On this day it's been turned into a venue for TEDxWhistler, a series of talks whose unifying theme is Tourism in a Sustainable World. Anthropologist Wade Davis has just completed a talk that urges Whistler to spread its sustainability message throughout the world.

Shortly after he's done, a plucky member of the audience rises to say her piece before a group that includes almost everyone from Whistler's establishment. The mayor is here, so is most of council. So too is the president of Whistler's biggest environmental advocacy group.

The young woman gets up to a microphone and opines about "carbon offsets," tools by which governments and corporations are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. Whistler is about to embark on the scheme, investing just under $150,000 in its first three years.

The audience member likens the tactic to confessing your sins to a Catholic priest, then going out and sinning again.

The room titters at this woman's quip, an analogy that doesn't encounter much resistance among people looking to establish a carbon market in British Columbia.

The market has Whistler taxpayers among its earliest clients as the municipality looks to become the first B.C. community to confess its sins against the climate to the clerics of carbon neutrality.


Whistler's journey to carbon neutrality began in September 2007, at the annual convention of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) in Vancouver. It was a conference where policy papers focused heavily on climate change and how governments should act to stall it.

At the UBCM convention, seven months after a Throne Speech in which Premier Gordon Campbell stunned the province with ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gases, the province announced the B.C. Climate Action Charter, an agreement between Victoria, the UBCM and signatory municipalities to help the province reach its goal of lowering its output of greenhouse gases 33 per cent by 2020.

The Charter asked much of its signatories. It required them to plan compact communities, build infrastructure that minimizes environmental impact and remove any legislative barriers to taking action on climate change.

Chief among those commitments was the promise that municipalities become "carbon neutral" - the condition of emitting net zero carbon by balancing output of greenhouse gases with an equivalent reduction elsewhere. Governments would get there by reducing their emissions and then purchasing offsets for whatever emissions they could not roll back any further.

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