V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Buying your way out

Published in Sun Media, February, 2007.

Part 2 in a 5-day series

Forgive us Mother Earth for we have sinned.

It's been five years and 758 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions since our last confession -- the amount of pollutants Canada has pumped into the atmosphere despite having ratified the Kyoto agreement in 2002.

How many Hail Mary's and carbon offsets must we commit to absolve ourselves of our sins?

By now, the allegory of the carbon offset and the papal indulgence has become as commonplace as the parable of the prodigal son among environmentalists -- only in this case, it's Mother Nature who stands with outstretched arms, welcoming back her rebellious child.

Here's how it works: Carbon offset programs work to neutralize carbon emissions produced by driving, flying or home energy consumption. On average, each Canadian produces more than five tonnes of carbon emissions a year -- enough to fill five Olympic-size swimming pools.

After calculating the amount of carbon produced from driving, for example, consumers can mitigate the damage done by paying into an offset program that invests the money into energy efficiency and green projects, mostly in developing countries.

Though well-intentioned, critics have likened the scheme to the 16th-century practice of papal indulgences, where Catholics were able to buy their way out of sinning.

Similarly, skeptics caution carbon offsets give polluters an easy way out -- $20 buys absolution of another kind, mollifying guilty consciences.

"Purchasing offsets can be seen as an easy way out for governments, businesses and individuals to continue polluting without making changes to the way they do business or their behaviour," warn Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature-U.K., in a joint statement. "In particular, there are strong concerns over the environmental credibility of the credits and the contribution of the projects to sustainable development."

Carbon offset schemes are not a new concept, having been around for more than a decade. But it's gained momentum in Canada only recently, with about a dozen offset companies in the country, many of which popped up within the last two years.

But if the fevered pitch of environmentalism continues along the current trajectory, chances are green initiatives like offset programs will grow.

At Offsetters.ca, a Vancouver-based, non-profit provider, business has been brisk.

In the last four months alone, co-founder James Tansey said sales have quadrupled.

When Offsetters.ca partnered with the airline WestJet in October of last year, they sold $120,000 in tickets for the airline translating into $2,400 or roughly 160 tonnes of offsets -- the equivalent of the annual output of 32 Canadians.

If they continue at the rate of the last three to four months, Offsetters.ca expects to grow by up to 10 times and offset $2 million in air travel this year, Tansey said.

When consumers purchase WestJet flights via their website, a 2% commission of the ticket cost is reinvested in carbon offsets, Tansey explains.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, agreed carbon offsets can be a part of the solution but all cautioned their endorsements come with caveats.

"The first priority is to reduce our own emissions," said Matthew Bramley of the Pembina Institute, based in Calgary. "But once you've done all you can to reduce emissions, we believe offsets enable you to go further. If you go all the way to carbon neutral, you're taking responsibility for 100% of emissions which is never possible to achieve purely through reductions."

Some carbon-intensive activities like driving for example, are unavoidable especially for rural and northern communities.

"The most important thing is that the consumer is becoming aware of their consumption of energy and the result of their emissions," said Bryce Conacher, CEO of Reknewco and Cleanairpass, launched in December 2005.

The first step to offsetting involves calculating your own emissions, Conacher said, which in itself acts as a wakeup call for the average Canadian, unaware of their own carbon footprint.

Ron Dembo, CEO of Zerofootprint in Toronto, describes the interest in offsetting as more than just a trend, but a watershed moment for Canadians.

"The first thing you're doing is making an enormous cultural leap. You now actually believe that the environment costs money," Dembo said. "By paying for that offset, you've made a massive cultural leap ... getting people to understand that the environment's not free."

Added Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation: "People looking into this are generally concerned and looking at their daily activities. It's an important criticism but not as big as some say."

In the U.K., bogus carbon schemes have caused so much concern the government moved last month to set standards and bring greater clarity to an exponentially growing industry.

"Clearly there's a role for the federal government to establish an agency or some sort of authority...where Canadians can be assured that if they're buying carbon offsets, the money is actually taking carbon out of the air," said Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club of Canada.

Though environmental groups often cite the Gold Standard -- used under Kyoto's Clean Development Mechanism -- as the highest bar to measure offsets, few are registered and are expensive for smaller projects. Voluntary offsets also come with a confusing assortment of standard guarantees: EcoLogo in Canada, Green-e in the U.S., and the International Organization for Standardization.

When purchasing an offset, experts advise the most important aspect to consider is additionality -- that is, the project wouldn't have happened without the extra funding from the sale of offsets.

"The whole purpose of offsets is to shift people away to a carbon neutral future," said Howie Chong of Toronto-based CarbonZero, launched last September. "If we can convince Canadians and the government to do this on their own, if we can make drastic changes so we're no longer carbon dependent, we'll shut down. It's that simple."

Part two of a five-part Sun Media series examining our changing climate and its effects.

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