It was a different world in 2007 when then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell announced that his would be the first carbon-neutral government in North America.
Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore was at the height of his green celebrity, his efforts to educate the world to pending climate-change doom immortalized in the film, An Inconvenient Truth.
Mr. Campbell bit hard on the swelling environmental concern that the failed U.S. presidential candidate precipitated with a slide show that documented rising oceans and receding ice caps and that incited widespread apocalyptic anxiety.
The B.C. premier was a leader among Canadian politicians in introducing measures designed to curb carbon emissions.
But like many of Mr. Campbell's ventures, his attention and focus on the issue eventually waned and climate policy took a back seat to other matters.
This week, however, British Columbians got an update on one of the central schemes in Mr. Campbell's climate-action strategy. And if nothing else, Auditor-General John Doyle's report into the workings of the government's carbon-offset system should raise a giant red flag.
Under the scheme, public institutions such as hospitals and universities transfer taxpayers' dollars to private-sector companies to reduce – or offset – emissions on their behalf. This allowed the province to say in 2010 that it had met its goal of carbon neutrality, to which Mr. Doyle said hogwash.
What he found is that the nearly $6-million in offsets that he investigated – purchased by the Pacific Carbon Trust on the government's behalf – went to companies that would have proceeded with emission-reducing projects, whether they had received the money or not.
"The Pacific Carbon Trust has not purchased credible offsets," Mr. Doyle said.
In other words, it was a colossal waste of public funds, which, of course, is music to the ears of skeptics who have been saying all along that carbon offsets and carbon-trading systems are nothing more than feel-good scams that accomplish little of value, but certainly make some people rich.
There is much about this story the public should be concerned about, not the least of which is the dubious efficacy of carbon offsets themselves. The idea that we have struggling schools paying $25 a tonne for the carbon dioxide they emit while having to forgo the hiring of teachers and the purchasing of books is preposterous. Especially given that in many cases this money is going to highly profitable private-sector companies.
The carbon offset market is worth an estimated $1-billion, which is perhaps why Mr. Doyle found himself under an unprecedented attack, via a letter-writing drive, from stakeholders named in his report. Having caught wind of where the auditor was going with his audit, various proponents put pressure on him to reconsider his opinion.
The soon-departing watchdog said he'd never experienced anything like it. He believes the virulent condemnation was intended to shatter confidence in his findings and destroy his credibility. It all has a certain smell of desperation about it, the embedded worry that the report might expose carbon offsets as a taxpayer-funded boondoggle.
Equally dismaying is that among those taking aim at the Auditor-General now is the B.C. government itself, no doubt stung by a report that is highly critical of one of its celebrated initiatives. Unwanted bad news on the eve of an election.
And let's not forget the government was initially refusing to release Mr. Doyle's report on the feeble grounds that it had been provided ahead of time, on an embargoed basis, to certain interest groups. Only after The Globe and Mail's Mark Hume obtained a copy of the report independently did the government release it publicly.
Shameful behaviour that is worthy of our broad contempt.
I believe the carbon-offset program was conceived with the best of intentions. But I also think it quickly attracted a potpourri of consultants and entrepreneurs and savvy corporations that smelled easy money. While the endeavour allowed the government to feel righteous and moral, the truth about what it was really accomplishing seems to be something else.
Whoever forms government after the May 14 election should immediately halt the program until it can be properly assessed by a credible independent body. While carbon neutrality is a worthy goal, it can't be achieved through smoke and mirrors or campaigns intent on intimidating those who dare question its validity.