OTTAWA — Carbon offsets, such as the ones the Liberals are buying for their campaign planes, are the standard way to compensate for greenhouse-gas emissions from air travel, though even people who sell them say the best thing for the planet is to not generate emissions in the first place.
While aviation companies, mostly at the behest of governments, have improved the fuel efficiency of their aircraft in the last 15 years, there is still no such thing as an electric jumbo jet, said Sean Drygas, the general manager at Bullfrog Inc.
His company runs the carbon-offset website less.ca, where the Liberals bought their credits in 2015 and will do so again this year. They are still working with the company to establish their campaign’s total emissions from both planes and all the tour buses it uses, and will pay the bill once it’s tallied.
Less.ca advises people to first reduce energy use as much as possible, then switch to green alternatives where they are available. For whatever is left, carbon offsets can help, said Drygas.
The issue of carbon offsets took centre stage during the Quebec leaders’ debate on TVA Wednesday night. That’s when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of being a “high-carbon hypocrite” for running two campaign planes.
Watch: Trudeau explains why his campaign has two planes. Story continues below.
Trudeau defended the two planes — one for passengers and one for cargo — by saying the second plane allows the Liberals to be more efficient about their tour stops and get to more places in Canada. It carries audio-visual equipment in advance of the passenger jet so when Trudeau arrives, the next event is ready to go immediately.
The Conservatives are not. Instead, they argue the best way to reduce greenhouse gases is to not emit them in the first place.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Thursday his campaign has made some effort to fly around less, and staying in one place for longer — eight days in a row in British Columbia, for instance.
“We didn’t fly back to Montreal when we could have to be at the climate (march), thinking that flying across Canada to join a climate rally in Montreal wouldn’t be the best way to show that we support fighting against the climate crisis,” he said.
The NDP’s campaign plan has also been constrained by its smaller budget as the party faces a cash crunch.
Planes among worst polluters
Carbon offsets allow individuals or companies to buy investments in green projects such as wind farms (to permanently replace electricity from carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil-fuel generation) or tree-planting endeavors (to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as the trees grow). Finding offsets is the main way the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) intends to help global airlines reduce their carbon footprints.
A discussion of just how to do that was underway at an ICAO conference in Montreal earlier this week. While domestic aviation emissions are attributed to the country where they are made, international aviation emissions are essentially stateless, so it is up to the aviation industry and international agreements to find ways to reduce them.
Aviation is one of the worst offenders for greenhouse-gas emissions, accounting for about 2.5 per cent of all global emissions in 2018. A single passenger’s share of the emissions from a flight between Toronto and Tokyo is roughly equal to six months worth of emissions from the average passenger car.
Carbon offsets are generally purchased through two systems that are monitored by the United Nations and international environment groups to ensure the credits offered are for real projects and are only sold once. One, known as the Gold Standard-Certified International Offsets, sells credits to invest in projects in developing countries, while the other, called the Ver+ Standard, invests in projects in developed countries, such as Canada.
Less.ca sells the Gold Standard offsets for $32 per tonne, and the Ver+ credits for $24 per tonne, which Drygas said are prices set by those organizations.
Offsets for Trudeau’s passenger-carrying flight earlier this week from Toronto to Montreal, for example, would cost $2.35 or $3.14 per traveller but it’s not clear how much the entire plane would be charged.
Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, said offsets are not ideal because there is no certainty the money is going to projects that wouldn’t be built without the offset revenues.
However, Stewart also said he fears the question about the planes and carbon offsets is a major distraction from the conversations Canadians should be having in this campaign about policies to reduce emissions and address climate change. He said the Conservatives are “picking on little things to avoid discussion of the big things that need to happen.”
Stewart acknowledged flying is a problem and more should be done to reduce emissions, but he added when it comes to concerns he has about political parties’ environment plans, “this is literally No. 702 on that list.”
The Conservatives created a Twitter account for the Trudeau cargo plane.
The “unofficial account of Justin Trudeau’s cargo plane” is using online flight trackers to follow the cargo plane, even uncovering that only 12 hours or so after the second plane became a debate issue, it was moved from one Montreal airport to the other, about 33 kilometres away.
“Because nothing says #ClimateEmergency like flying a passenger jet to beat Montreal traffic,” the account tweeted.
The Liberals haven’t yet explained why they needed their planes to make that hop.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2019.