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Victoria looks to Saanich for help meeting carbon-neutral deadline

“Why wouldn’t we be doing what Saanich does?” asked Mayor Dean Fortin, at a special joint meeting combining the two municipal councils recently.

As municipalities approach their pledged carbon-neutral deadline, discussions about keeping carbon offset dollars in the community have begun.

Saanich developed its own system to do just that, and Victoria council is interested in the details.

“Why wouldn’t we be doing what Saanich does?” asked Mayor Dean Fortin, at a special joint meeting combining the two municipal councils recently.

Sitting next to Fortin, Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard didn’t miss the cue.

“Mark, do you want to just explain how incredibly brilliant we are?” he asked.

Saanich created its own carbon neutral fund in 2007 in preparation for going carbon neutral in 2012, explained sustainability co-ordinator Mark Boysen.

“We set aside the equivalent dollars that we would use to purchase offsets and put that into a fund, and that’s led to us being able to do all kinds of different projects in our municipal operations,” said Boysen.

“It’s been successful so far,” he said. Projects range from the standard “boring” but effective ones like lighting upgrades, to more exciting ones, such as testing solar hot water systems at the Gordon Head Recreation Centre. Each department pays into and draws from its own fund, which creates an internal motivation to reduce emissions and initiative energy-saving projects.

Starting in 2012, municipalities that have voluntarily pledged carbon neutrality will have to begin buying offsets to compensate for their carbon emissions.

In Victoria, the sustainability department is preparing the city’s own carbon neutral plan.

One option is to begin purchasing offsets from the provincially created Pacific Carbon Trust.

Schools and hospitals are already required to purchase offsets through this B.C. carbon-trading and monitoring agency.

Since its creation last year, however, the system is being criticized for taking funds from public bodies and channelling them into private resource companies in other parts of the province.

It’s a pitfall Allison Ashcroft is taking seriously.

“We want local projects,” said Victoria’s senior planner of environmental issues. Spending carbon-offset money in Victoria helps to create local jobs, helps the community transition to a green economy, and helps educate people on issues of climate change, she said.

Adopting Saanich’s localized model, however, isn’t a quick fix to a complex problem.

Saanich’s model is a great project but “doesn’t achieve carbon neutrality,” she said. The problem is that local projects must be independently verified to meet the requirements under the B.C. Climate Action Charter, signed by 178 municipalities.

There are ways to qualify local projects, but they come with red tape.

“If we had a project, we’d still have to go through the process of getting it approved and verified even though there is protocol in place,” she said, adding it’s a lot of work and expense.

“The option of purchasing offsets from (Pacific Carbon Trust) is definitely the easiest and would definitely be the cheapest for local governments.”

Since the Climate Action Charter came out in 2007, guidance for municipal governments has shifted several times.

For this reason, “we’ve been taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Ashcroft.