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Alberta frequently claims to be “greening” its dirty, fossil-fuel industries: coal and oil sands. One major, much-vaunted initiative is the Greenhouse Gas emission system in the  Specified Gas Emitter Regulation. The regulation requires large emitters of greenhouse gases to either reduce the intensity of their own emissions, or to “offset” their emissions in one of the following ways:

  • Pay the modest sum of $15/tonne into the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund;
  • Use emission performance credits—When regulated facilities achieve actual emissions intensity that is less than their emissions  intensity limit, they create emission performance credits. A facility may use credits it created in prior years or use credits that other regulated facilities created; or
  • Purchase offsets—When non-regulated facilities or sectors engage in activities that reduce emissions (for example, wind energy projects) or enhance emissions removal from the atmosphere (for example, reduced-till or no-till agricultural projects), they create offsets.

A review of the offsets was part of the Report of the Auditor General of Alberta, November 2011, which found that not a single one of the “tillage” credits (granted to farmers who switch to “no-till” or “reduced-till” agricultural practices) could be sufficiently verified.

Carbon offsets – both voluntary and mandatory – have the potential to create huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and many other social benefits, at much lower costs than direct emission reductions. However, there have been many problems in ensuring that the carbon offsets are, in truth, achieving their stated reductions. Effective validation, verification and auditing are critical to give offsets credibility. The ISO 14064/14065 series of standards set out international principles for such processes, but they haven’t yet been much followed in Canada.

The Globe and Mail notes that the tillage credits may have been created for short-term political gain, as it allowed the province to buy support from farmers for its carbon-market plan.  And in theory, agriculture could provide meaningful carbon reductions and offsets. However, the Auditor General’s report will add to cynicism about Alberta’s continuing claims to be “greening” its fossil fuel industries, as well as to Canada’s international black eye on climate.

by Meredith James and Dianne Saxe

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