Confessions of a Former Offset Skeptic - Morgan McDonald
You’ve probably heard of carbon offsets. They are the intangible vouchers you can buy to counteract your impact on the climate every time you burn fossil fuels or otherwise cause the release of greenhouse gas emissions. I had known about the idea of buying and selling carbon for about ten years before I was offered a job with Offsetters in Vancouver, Canada.
“Offsetting? But I don’t believe in offsetting,” I recall thinking. Carbon credits were spurious, the good ones were painfully difficult to create (lots of paperwork involved) and, at the best of times, they just resulted in a net-zero impact on the climate – for every emission reduced, someone else lets one go.
My first exposure to carbon trading was in the spring of 1999 when I attended a climate change conference in El Salvador. International delegates had been invited to explore some of the opportunities and risks associated with the carbon trading schemes of the new Kyoto Protocol. A hot topic was the Clean Development Mechanism, a Kyoto program to encourage investment in developing nations through carbon trading. Would this just be another way for wealthy countries to exploit poorer ones? Would carbon reductions be pursued at the expense of other social and environmental impacts? At this time the carbon market was still just an idea but it was already becoming contentious.
I later moved to Vancouver to work with a company that designed and installed solar water heating systems. My first assignment was to support the company’s involvement in an experimental carbon-trading scheme called GERT (the Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Trading Pilot). GERT offered a means of learning about carbon trading by doing it, with participants from government, industry, and environmental groups. It was an interesting concept, but the reporting and analysis seemed endless. We were quantifying something that didn’t exist (a lack of emissions) and could never be proven. We had to calculate, research, and reveal a lot of data, and we were at the whim of a committee to review and scrutinize our claims. I had strong doubts that the business world would ever participate in something like this.
I spent the next seven years designing solar water heating systems and working with other experts in renewables and energy efficiency across the country. We would always evaluate the CO2 reductions associated with our projects but we couldn’t really assign any monetary value to them. When Offsetters approached me, they were looking for someone with my project experience to head their sourcing department. I was impressed by Offsetters’ perspective on the emerging carbon market: their mission was to lead by example with high quality projects and to prove that offsets could be a legitimate part of the climate solution.
What about all that paperwork? It’s still there, but the industry has evolved and the process is more streamlined than it was back in the GERT days. There are internationally recognized quality standards, third-party validators and verifiers who sign-off on the project and the numbers, as well as registries where the public can view the transactions and confirm that each credit is unique and not being double-sold. It appeared that the international carbon market was becoming quite sophisticated and that it was an opportune time to help build the local market in B.C. and across Canada.
Okay, but what were the actual projects? I looked at the Offsetters portfolio: ground-source heat pump installations at five community buildings including care facilities for seniors and the disabled as well as a First Nations school and Band office; energy efficiency measures at a commercial greenhouse, supporting local food production and reducing their exposure to natural gas price shocks; international development projects in Cambodia, Uganda, and India that brought energy efficiency and resource security to small communities. I was impressed. The projects supported appropriate technologies and they had real social benefits outside of the carbon trade.
I realized that I was being offered the opportunity to seek out and develop more great projects to add to this list. As you may have guessed, I took the job.
So what about the issue of the net-zero impact? That every tonne offset is countered by another tonne emitted? Well, I soon discovered that people who pay for their carbon emissions have a strong interest in reducing them over time. And they do. Our repeat customers are proof of this. Over the long term, they save money and reduce risk by fine-tuning their operations to make a smaller impact. In the short term, they support new projects that make a difference right away.
It’s a great job and I enjoy the challenge. I suppose I’m still an offset skeptic in the sense that I scrutinize every project and every aspect of the process. After all, if I see anything wrong, it’s now my job to fix it.
Morgan McDonald has a background in mechanical engineering and over ten years of experience designing and describing sustainable energy systems. He was a founding director of the BC Sustainable Energy Association and is an educator on solar heating systems. Morgan also plays piano and keyboards in the innovative avant-rock group “Fond of Tigers”.