Jeff Nield, Vancouver Courier, Friday, July 20, 2007
Standing on the south bank of the Fraser River a stone’s throw from the Vancouver
International Airport, Dr. Hadi Dowlatabadi motions toward the frenetic activity at
the Olympic speed skating oval construction site. "This exercise is about as valuable
an experiment as I could have done in my academic career," he says, pulling his Lee
Valley Tools baseball cap tight to his black wire rim glasses to ward off the late June
sunshine.

The project he’s describing, built as part of the oval site, is the Richmond Thermal
Energy Network. Using the waste heat from the creation of ice at the Olympic
venue, it’s one of the region’s biggest alternative energy projects.

"Ordinarily you build an ice rink, and to make the ice you have to reject a lot of
heat," explains the affable, Iranian-born UBC professor who’s also associate director
of the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. "Just like the back of
your refrigerator. Cool inside the icebox, warm outside the icebox."

The reflected heat that would otherwise be lost will be pumped to new apartments to
be built around the oval. The Offsetters Carbon Neutral Society, a two-year-old
Vancouver-based non-profit that Dr. Dowlatabadi co-founded, is instrumental in the
project’s development. And the society’s involvement with the oval project is being
paid for partly by people who want to cancel out the considerable carbon pollution
they put into the atmosphere every time they step on an airplane. It’s a model
scheme that typifies the new, but exploding, industry built on the concept of carbon
offsets.

A carbon offset is a monetary investment in a project that reduces greenhouse gas
emissions by an amount equivalent to the measured amount of a polluting activity.
Individuals wanting to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle pay a fee to an offsetting
company, which in turn invests that money in projects that either remove
greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or result in less greenhouse gas expelled at
source. For industry it often makes economic sense to purchase offsets rather than
reduce emissions because it is immediately possible and often the cheapest
alternative. Proponents of carbon offsetting argue it signals the beginning of
assigning a monetary value to the environment. Any sort of acknowledgement of the
impact of individual and corporate greenhouse gas emissions is invaluable, they say,
as we move toward an uncertain future of global warming.

Greenhouse gas emissions are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide. There is
currently no set price for an offset tonne of carbon dioxide. Each offset organization
charges a price that its specific project requires to remove that tonne of carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere. According to the flight calculator on the OffsettersCarbon Neutral Society website, a 10,000 kilometre return flight from Vancouver to St. Johns, Nfld. by air produces 1.382 tonnes of CO2. According to the society, it would cost them $26.05 to offset that carbon. While individuals can voluntarily offset any flight, the society has joined with WestJet so that the airline will pay the society the cost of the offset on any flight booked through a link on the society’s website.

WestJet was trying to increase its energy efficiency when it was approached by
Offsetters to set up an affiliate program. "Our fleet is 30 per cent more efficient
today than the one we were flying in 2005," boasts WestJet’s Director of Culture and
Communications, Richard Bartrem, by telephone from the airline’s Calgary
headquarters. Although the partnership hasn’t been featured in any major public
relations campaigns, it has had an impact internally. "We’re just beginning our 2008
plan and will be developing a more robust environmental plan. [The joint venture]
has raised our awareness of the issue."

Through the program, two per cent of a ticket purchased through the society’s
website link is returned to the society.

"We did a portfolio flights analysis and it turns out that two per cent is exactly right
for our offsets," says Dowlatabadi. "So we take the two per cent and put it into
projects. There’s been more than $300,000 of ticket sales so that’s $6,000 of
offsets."

While the money from air travellers isn’t enough to fund a major project, it’s only
one of a variety of funding sources. Corporate clients include Macdonald Realty,
which wants to offset its operations, and Active Renewables, one of the new gas
marketers popping up around B.C. that want to give their customers the option of
offsetting their natural gas consumption.

The society keeps costs down with one paid staff member working out of a virtual
office. Neither Dowlatabadi nor society co-founder and fellow UBC professor James
Tansey draw a salary from the society, which allowed them to limit operational costs
to 20 per cent of the money raised in 2006.

Only a portion of the heating project budget at the Olympic oval is raised through
offsets.

"Offsetters funding from people who want to offset their flights is being used
for engineering costs," says Dowlatabadi.

The rest of the $16 million budget, mostly infrastructure costs, is coming from
private investors.

Not everyone is convinced of carbon offsetting’s benefits. Many people criticize it as a "pay-to-pollute" scheme. Individuals, institutions and companies that purchase
offsets may not change their polluting behaviour if they can merely buy their way to
carbon neutrality. Opponents of offsetting suggest that voluntary measures like
offsetting won’t work in the long run and stronger measures will inevitably be
introduced. An alternative solution would be a carbon tax to ensure that those
causing ecological damage will be forced to pay based on the greenhouse gases they
emit.

The City of Vancouver considered purchasing carbon offsets to help achieve its goal
of reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by city operations by 33 per cent
below current levels by 2020, but decided it wasn’t an effective strategy.

"We feel that there is better value to the community and taxpayers money in
reducing our emissions," says City of Vancouver climate change program manager
Sean Pander in a phone interview from the city’s sustainability office.

City hall is reducing its carbon emissions in a number of ways, including retrofitting city buildings to be more energy efficient, capping the city-administered Delta landfill
and using the waste methane to generate heat and electricity and introducing small
but effective actions such as the recently introduced "no idling" bylaw. As the
deadline for achieving the 33 per cent reduction nears, the city could consider
purchasing offsets in locally based projects, but Pander doesn’t think this will be
necessary. "We’re moving towards our targets quietly, but effectively," he says.

The cautious optimism to offsets from business and government as public pressure
to take action on global warming is understandable. Offsets are an unregulated
market, and it takes due diligence to make sure investments live up to their hype.

There are two basic characteristics to help weed out the bad projects from the good.
The first key attribute of a quality offset project is "additionality."

This means that without the investment of the offsetting company the project would
not happen. "It is additional both in enabling the project and in becoming a template
for others to emulate," says Dowlatabadi in reference to the oval project. "Without
that enabling it would never have happened."

The second quality check for an offset project is whether or not there will be a
permanent removal of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

The Richmond project will use ground source heat pumps to utilize the rejected heat
energy from the making of ice to heat 2,100 homes in a new development being
built adjacent to the oval. The new community of medium-rise apartment blocks is
being developed on City of Richmond land sold with the condition that the developer
implement the energy project.

"The ice-making machine has a heat exchanger to get rid of heat with glycol
[radiator fluid] running through it," explains Dowlatabadi. The heated fluid is then
pumped underground to the individual buildings. "There’s going to be one air conditioning unit–a heat pump for air-conditioning and heating–in every apartment, and then there’s going to be one large heat pump for hot water in every building."

Once inside the building the glycol circulates to each floor and loops throughout the
floor, heating or cooling each unit as needed and triggered by individual thermostats.

"We’ll also be recapturing all the grey water–your shower. We’ll be circulating that
warm water that was used for eight seconds," says Dowlatabadi. "The glycol returns
to the oval when cold. Or, it’s pumped below ground in the summer to heat the
ground as a storage of heat for the winter when it will be recaptured for circulation
to the buildings."

Radiant heat, says Dowlatabadi, is the most efficient way to heat an apartment right
now. "Every unit of electricity you put in it, that much heat you get out of it. That’s
100 per cent efficient. Heat pumps are 400 per cent efficient. You put one unit of
energy in, you get four units of heat out. Instead of using fuel to make heat you use
fuel to move heat."

Since it will take three times less energy to heat the community around the oval,
there will be three times less greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere to provide
that heat.

The first corporate supporter of carbon offsets in B.C. was Small Potatoes Urban
Delivery, which has been concerned about environmental sustainability since its
inception in 1998.

"There’s a lot in the design of our business that helps to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions," says president and CEO David Van Seters from SPUD’s office and
warehouse at Commercial and Hastings. "We’ve done a number of things to conserve
energy. But, of course, we still have some emissions from our operations, obviously, being in the delivery business."

Three years ago SPUD invested in one of the first local offset projects, an ecosystem
restoration project that will see over 250,000 trees planted in 1,100 acres in Maple
Ridge. The project was launched by the North Vancouver-based company Ecosystem Restoration Associates, better known as ERA. Along with planning ecosystem restorations, the five core staff at ERA have found themselves in the unenviable position of defending their project amidst the onslaught of criticism of offset projects in general and reforestation projects in particular. There have been some high profile offset project failures that have cast a pall over the whole industry. Most famously, the rock band Coldplay invested in a project to limit the environmental impact of producing their album by planting 10,000 mango trees in India. Five years later, most of the trees had died, reportedly due to poor project management. Closer to home, a project to remove alders and reforest riparian zones in Haida Gwaii has come under fire by the B.C. Forest Service for a lack of credible science. But ERA says it’s rigorous in ensuring that the projects it packages as EcoNeutral Offset Products meet all the quality requirements of a legitimate offset project.

On the outskirts of Maple Ridge, past signs advertising new communities named
Trail’s Edge and Highland Forest, small crews are hard at work clearing brush and
planting trees as part of ERA’s community ecosystem restoration initiative.
Throughout the year, the project employs eight field staff, which balloons to 23
during this summer’s planting season. The brushing and planting crews enter the
degraded riparian zones that are under restoration by foot. The brushing crew clears
away the invasive species, like Himalayan blackberry and English ivy. Using brush
saws that look like over-sized weed whackers and chain saws, they prepare the area
for planting. Trees, including Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, western red cedar, western
hemlock, and poplar, are planted in small clusters of up to nine trees to mimic
natural stands. Each tree is entered into a GIS database and its growth is tracked.

"They’re monitored until they’re out of the risk zone," explains ERA CEO Dr. Robert
Falls. "Any problems with vandalism or anything else and those trees will be
replaced."

Wearing a green EcoNeutral T-shirt, the genial, middle-aged Falls is quick to dismiss
the notion that tree planting, or ecosystem restoration, is not a legitimate carbon
offset project.

"The only way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is with
photosynthesis," he says. "That’s what trees and other plant life and healthy
ecosystems do."

He has gone so far as to secure the internationally respected ISO 14064-2
certification for ERA’s ecosystem restoration initiatives. This certification provides
third-party verification to ensure the project sequesters the carbon its projected to
remove, and that the work being done is additional. Falls has been involved with
developing the concept of offsetting since 1990 and believes that it will make a
difference in reversing global warming.

"Our vision is growing the removals so that one day–I’ll be gone–they’ll keep pace
and begin to go the other direction in terms of the international emissions which are
growing," he says. "Offsetting is absolutely essential to addressing climate change."

Falls also believes that projects like his can make profitable businesses. "We’re
hoping that our business model works. But right now we’re in the initial stage of this
business development. There’s certainly a significant risk associated with this, like
there is with the start up of any business."

Individuals wishing to go carbon neutral through ERA’s projects can pay a subscription fee based on an individually calculated carbon footprint. Most of the
money raised for the projected $3 million Maple Ridge project has come from
corporate sources that are attempting to become carbon neutral. Falls is also quick
to praise businesses like SPUD that have supported this project. "These are forward thinking organizations that don’t have to do this, they’re doing it because they’re
committed."

Van Seters says SPUD was the first company in B.C. to participate in a greenhouse gas offsetting program. "Our primary motivation was to be a good corporate citizen,
not necessarily to get kudos for it."

Van Seters has also signed SPUD up to participate in workshops organized by
Ecotrust Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Alberta-based Pembina
Institute to help measure the emissions of company operations, reduce those
emissions where possible and explore local opportunities for offset investment.

"Part of our motivation was just to want to support organizations that are working to
develop the techniques," says Van Seters. "How do you get it started if no one is
going to support them? So that’s why we decided to jump in and say, OK, we’ll put
in some dollars."

Over the clatter and bang of the cranes and heavy machinery at the oval project
behind him, Dowlatabadi speculates on the future.

"The success of this project will give Richmond the confidence to expand it," he says.

He motions toward the air terminals on the far side of the river.

"The next huge source of heat for Richmond development is actually the airport.
They have a couple of very large heat rejection units that we’re going to hook up to
north Richmond developments. Instead of wasting that heat, we’re going to use it to
heat people’s homes."

© Vancouver Courier 2007