Regional district grapples with carbon neutrality

The Kootenay governments spend about $11 million a year on energy — to heat buildings, power lights, and move their vehicles.

Five years ago, the Regional District of East Kootenay pledged it would save as many greenhouse gas emissions as it spends by the time 2013 rolled around.

But last week, the board of directors decided to wait on the final step in achieving that goal.

In 2007, the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) signed the Climate Action Charter, pledging to be carbon neutral in 2012. It was joined by the regional districts of Kootenay Boundary and Central Kootenay and initiated the Carbon Neutral Kootenays (CNK) project.

At a governance committee meeting on Thursday, November 1, CNK project manager Dale Littlejohn gave the RDEK board of directors an overview of how the regional districts have worked towards carbon neutrality since 2007.

The Kootenay governments spend about $11 million a year on energy — to heat buildings, power lights, and move their vehicles between 388 buildings and 995 vehicles.

Energy assessments in municipal buildings, wastewater treatment plants and recreation facilities have saved the governments about $750,000 in energy savings.

“We understand how much energy and emissions we’ve got, we’ve estimated the offset costs and total GHG emissions we have to take responsibility for. Now is the time we start thinking about greenhouse gas offsets,” said Littlejohn.

He explained an offset is generated by a combination of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, avoiding GHG emissions, and sequestering GHG emissions.

Planning manager Andrew McLeod explained to the board that after all of the energy savings, the RDEK still has to account for 730 tonnes of GHG emissions.

“In order to call ourselves carbon neutral and meet the Climate Action Charter commitment, the purchase of offsets is going to be necessary,” he said. “If the board chooses not to pursue that, we can do any number of other things with that money in our community, but we will not be able to call ourselves carbon neutral and carry that designation.”

In time, the regional district may be able to balance its emissions through community-based projects such as energy-efficient building retrofits, vehicle fuel switching, solar hot water, household organic waste composting and low emission vehicles. But the RDEK does not yet have these projects ready and, regardless, is unlikely to save enough GHGs to reach carbon neutrality.

“(These projects) are never going to achieve carbon neutrality for your government,” said McLeod. “They are only going to help chip away at that total liability which for the regional district is 730 tonnes, so the purchasing of carbon offsets is almost guaranteed to always be a requirement to achieve carbon neutral local government.

“That piece of the puzzle is always going to be there, it just depends how many actions you can take along the way to reduce that total liability.”

Both Littlejohn and McLeod recommended that the board purchase carbon offsets at $25 per tonne, for a total of $18,250 in the Darkwoods conservation project near Creston. Then the regional district would be able to call itself carbon neutral for 2012.

“We are recommending this for offsetting your 2012 emissions, and you would do that in spring 2013,” said Littlejohn. “This is a way to achieve carbon neutrality in the timeframe that local government has committed to, while keeping the money in the Kootenays.”

But the board was split on the validity of purchasing carbon offsets.

“I’m dead against buying offsets,” said Area A Director Mike Sosnowski. “In my mind, it’s unreasonable that you put the money in the bank – you might as well burn it.”

He said that since the federal government isn’t committed to carbon neutrality, it seems unreasonable for local governments to make the commitment. He said he would rather spend the $18,000 on local projects that would result in GHG emissions.

However, Invermere Director Gerry Taft pointed out that local projects would be much more expensive.

“In order to decrease the number of tons of carbon that the regional district needs to decrease in order to become carbon neutral, it would cost a lot more money than $18,000 a year. I’m not sure for a $1 million  project how many tonnes of carbon you can decrease, but it’s definitely going to be higher than $25 a tonne.”

Cranbrook Director Bob Whetham said it would take too long to identify a local project to offset this year’s carbon emissions.

“We’re not going to be able to chase around all over the region for something that’s going to give us the offsets we need to qualify. We are better off just dealing with the $18,000 and continuing to proceed with all the efforts we have, whether they qualify for eligibility or not, and just move on.”

Eventually, the board decided to wait before making a decision on purchasing carbon offsets, to allow staff more time to identify East Kootenay projects for the investment.

But, according to McLeod, “the commitment we signed on to in 2007 when we signed the Climate Action Charter is to be carbon neutral in 2012.

“The time to do that is between now and March when the offset purchase is required.”