For Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall, there is a bit of symmetry in his company’s efforts to stay carbon-neutral.
His airline’s float planes fly over large parts of British Columbia’s south coast, and the company buys some of the carbon offsets for their emissions from a program that generates carbon credits from preservation of the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s central coast, “right in our backyard.”
The credits come from the Great Bear Carbon Project, which wasn’t front and centre on Feb. 1 when the province and First Nations finalized a historic agreement preserving 85 per cent of the region’s remaining temperate rainforest, but it was a key plank in that deal’s foundation.
Completion of the deal offers an opportunity to make a small, but measurable, expansion of the program, said Garry Wouters, a policy consultant for the organization Coastal First Nations, depending on how the market for such credits evolves.
Offsets are derived from the protection of forests that would otherwise be logged and reduction in disturbances to the land from road building and harvesting activities that can contribute to carbon emissions, Wouters said.
Sale of the offsets generated $35 million between 2012 and 2015, Wouters said.
The province itself, with its carbon-neutral commitments, has been the biggest customer for those offsets, but companies ranging from Aimia, parent company to the airline-reward program Aeroplan, to Vancity credit union and Harbour Air also buy them.
Harbour Air made the commitment to take the airline carbonneutral a decade ago, purchasing credits from the Great Bear Rainforest as part of the airline’s mix of offsets since 2012.
“We are an airline that is uniquely connected to the environment of British Columbia,” said McDougall in an email exchange. With planes that fly around the coast using ocean inlets, rivers and lakes as its runways, many of its customers feel strongly about the coastal environment, and it is important to McDougall to invest in protecting some of it.
“I believe investing in the Great Bear Rainforest’s future is important for British Columbians for generations to come,” he said.
Harbour Air and its subsidiaries, Westcoast Air, Whistler Air, Tantalus Air, Saltspring Air and Aeroflite International Services Ltd., have also reduced their own emissions through better scheduling to maximize passenger loads, replacing vehicles or engines with more efficient alternatives, and sourcing materials from other sustainability-minded suppliers.
The company has spent $1.7 million on offsets through the Vancouver-based carboncredit firm Offsetters since 2007, and McDougall said he would be interested in making Great Bear Rainforest credits a bigger part of the company’s offset mix, if they became available.
Wouters said the conservation agreement should result in about a 15 per cent increase in offsets available to its program.
However, because B.C. doesn’t have a fully regulated cap-andtrade system for emission reductions, Wouters said they can’t sell their credits into the capand-trade markets that exist, such as in California, Ontario or Quebec.
And the voluntary market for offsets, such as those bought by airline passengers looking to overcome their guilt at contributing to jet-powered emissions, “is a much more limited market, both in supply and price,” Wouters said.
“It looks like Canada is leaning toward leaving it up to every province to define whether they do offsets or a carbon-tax regime (like B.C.).
“If offsets (in other provinces) were expanded in a way we can access into those markets, for us, that would bring long-term stability for the value of our offsets.”
Accounting for offsets is a complicated process, Wouters said. They have to be re-measured on an annual basis before they can be sold, and allowances have to be made for losses due to events such as forest fires.
The Great Bear Carbon initiative has been controversial. In 2013, critics sparred with the
province, which shares in ownership of the credits derived from Crown land, and the Coastal First Nations over the appropriateness of counting credits in a region where it was understood that large swaths of land would be protected anyway.
However, Art Sterrit, who has since retired as executive director of the Coastal First Nations, argued that access was essential to secure First Nations’ agreement to the deal to protect the forests and that they were giving up logging rights as part of the package.
Wouters said the deal also requires that 65 per cent of revenue from the credits has to go back into conservation programs, which communities have put to use setting up stewardship offices, training monitors (who they call watchmen) to spot illegal activities or ecotourism activities.
He said the program has also given First Nations resources that they never had before to participate in the environmental assessment process for major projects and to better review resource-permit applications in consultation with government.
“Those are capacity-building examples this money has been used for,” Wouters said.