Is British Columbia’s carbon offset scheme really just a green slush fund – one in which the well-connected receive money that should have been spent on sick people?

An Auditor General helps ensure that public money is being spent wisely. He or she is usually an accountant and therefore looks closely at numbers and dollar signs.

When John Doyle, the Auditor General of British Columbia, released a damning report last week he properly stuck to his narrow mandate (see my previous posts here and here). It wasn’t his job to second-guess government policy.

But reading his report as a layperson, I felt as though I’d tumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole. Even if the carbon offsets purchased by the BC government had been legitimate, the report was describing an absurd situation.

I’ve already suggested that there’s something narcissistic about a jurisdiction of 4.5 million people imagining that it can – and should – be a global leader in the fight against climate change. It’s cool to fancy yourself a general, but where’s the army?

Who, exactly, does BC expect to fall into line behind its illustrious leadership? The mild climate enjoyed by many of its residents is so different from the remainder of Canada that measures that make sense there simply aren’t practical elsewhere.

There are 79 cities in this world that contain more people than does that entire province. Why would the rest of the globe care what BC does?

If you think about these matters at all critically for more than 90 seconds it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the $18 million appropriated from public services (as penance for their 2010 carbon footprint) purchased only one thing: ego gratification for BC’s political elites.

BC politicians claimed to be operating the first carbon neutral government in North America. Too bad the Auditor General has determined that that claim isn’t supported by the evidence.

His report contains fragments of other information that, once a person connects the dots, reveals a murky world of squishy definitions, creative accounting, and far more concern for appearances than reality.

Evidently, the BC government thinks some emissions matter, but not others. The emissions associated with waste disposal – as well as government services that have been outsourced – simply aren’t counted (p. 17).

Emissions generated by school buses and public transit buses are counted but the government has decided they belong in a special category and that offsets aren’t required in their case (p. 19).

In 2011, public sector emissions rose – rather than fell – by 6 percent. But the government did some hand waving and decided that, since temperatures were colder than average that year, there was actually “a relative reduction of approximately 3 percent when normalized for climate variability” (pp. 18, 28).

I kid you not. These are the kinds of games that are being played. If emissions really are having a terrible effect on the climate, do you think those effects won’t happen just because the BC government has found a way to turn a positive number into a negative one on paper?

The Auditor General didn’t question the basic premise that a significant portion of climate change is caused by humans – or that it’s dangerous. He also accepted at face value the claim that “British Columbia is experiencing the symptoms of climate change right now – from the pine beetle epidemic to increased forest fires and flooding” (p. 12).

He didn’t comment on the fact that requiring all public sector organizations to spend time tallying up their carbon footprint drains resources away from their real purpose.

Nor did he highlight the obvious: the climate change obsession has real consequences in the real world. $18 million collected in carbon footprint fees means $18 million less is being spent on public services.

Finally, the Auditor General mentioned – but did not condemn – the fact the carbon offsets purchased by the BC government must be “generated in B.C.”(p. 6). The most he was willing to say was that such a restriction

can create risks around availability and quality and makes the PCT dependent on a restricted pool of projects. [p. 15]

Let us be honest. BC’s economy simply isn’t that big. The province of Ontario’s is three times the size. The economies of Quebec and Alberta also outrank it. Therefore, legitimate carbon offset projects within BC’s borders may always be in short supply.

So how is this for a depressing thought: the annual pool of carbon offset money is really just a green slush fund – a mechanism by which the BC government siphons money from hospitals and gives that money to its friends.

Viva la climate crusade!


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