Victoria and GHG Emissions

(Disclosure: I work full-time for the Climate Action Secretariat as a climate policymaker, and part time for the School of Environmental Studies at Uvic. The views expressed in this post, my own, aren't based on any privileged or confidential material, but rather on publicly accessible information.)

For those of us who care about climate change and policy, the recent article in focusmagazine has made quite a splash. The article entitled "City of Victoria Cheats on First Emissions Count" (…/city-of-victoria-cheats-o…/) makes numerous false and misleading claims about not only Victoria's methods of accounting for GHG emissions, but also the good faith (or lack thereof) that has driven climate action in the city.

Below is my attempt to contextualize, refute, and dismantle this poorly conceived article. (Apologies for the wonkiness that follows.)

The Focus article takes aim at the City's 2018 "Climate Leadership Plan" and the 2017 emissions data analyzed therein. It asserts that the city "cheated" on its emissions report -- i.e. that city engineers engaged in a purposeful act of fraud -- and essentially juked the stats to justify future policy decisions.

The key pieces of evidence are side-by-side graphs that show two pie charts. The first, on the left, shows the GHG emissions calculated for the city by a consulting firm (Stantec) that was hired by the city to help Victoria assess its own emissions. The second chart, on the right, is the final pie chart produced by the city, which is prominently featured in the "Climate Leadership Plan." The two charts show different emissions data. Stantec found 465,482 tonnes of C02e, whereas the city claims only 387,694 tonnes. The discrepancy raises a red flag for the author.

So what's the context here? Why is the city hiring a consulting firm to calculate its emissions, and why do the pie charts differ?

To understand the answers to these questions requires a brief history lesson.

In 2007, the province of BC legislated a suite of climate policies, including ambitious emissions reductions targets and the creation of a program called the Community Emissions and Energy Inventory (CEEI) (…/environme…/climate-change/data/ceei). Recognizing that municipalities across BC did not have the capacity or knowhow to calculate their own city-level emissions, the province provided this data to every city in the province on an annual basis. The CEEI was ahead of its time and established its own norms about how emissions are calculated. Unfortunately, this program ended in 2012 due to internal policy decisions, which meant that cities were suddenly deprived of data on their own emissions. To muddy the water, the province continues to provide *some* of the data, especially on utilities, to municipalities, but they've mostly been on their own since 2012.

So the result was that most municipalities had big gaps in their knowledge of their own territorial emissions (i.e. the emissions that come from their own jurisdictions). Some of the larger towns and cities eventually cobbled together enough public monies to hire consultants to calculate their emissions. Victoria got around to doing so in 2017, and hired Stantec to do the research.

Meanwhile, much had changed in the GHG accounting world since 2007. New protocols (rules and standards) were created to bring some order to how cities and other jurisdictions calculate emissions. One prominent protocol that caught on was GPC Basic+, which is mentioned by the author of the Focus Magazine article, and which was used by Stantec do to its calculations.

There's two points to make about GPC Basic+. The first is that it's a broad framework for calculating emissions, and allows for quite a lot of choice in what kinds of emissions are included or not included in an inventory. It includes three categories of emissions:

* Scope 1: direct emissions from the jurisdiction
* Scope 2: energy-related indirect emissions
* Scope 3: all other indirect emissions

When cities use GPC Basic+, they are supposed to be 100% transparent about whether they're including some or all of scope 2 and scope 3 emissions in the inventory, and the details and rationale for their decisions. (Side note: the continued lack of standardization in how emissions are calculated makes comparing emissions from one place to the next a maddening exercise.)

Second, GPC Basic+ -- or more specifically, Stantec's use of it -- happens to differ from the norms of the CEEI, which, although dead, continues to shape how cities view territorial emissions in BC.

Jeremy, could you please provide a concrete example of how Stantec's methods differ from the ones traditionally used in BC? Sure, I'd be happy to.

Take emissions from cars as an example. The CEEI used a method called "residency-based" calculations for car emissions. What that means is that the city in which a car is *registered* is the city that owns the emissions emitted from the car, regardless of where it goes. So even if a Langford-based car gets driven around all day in Victoria -- and thus the emissions were emitted in Victoria -- Langford still owns the emissions.

Stantec, by contrast, widened the scope of how territorial emissions are calculated and included a category called "Transboundary Transportation." Going back to my example of the car, in this method, the emissions emitted in Victoria belong to *Victoria,* even if the car is registered to a homeowner in Langford.

Taking this approach tends to inflate Victoria's emissions because it's the urban hub, and many suburban cars drive around our streets all day.

So this takes me to conclusion #1: There is more than one way to calculate emissions in true and accurate ways. (In fact, there are yet other ways, for instance, "consumption-based" inventories, which count the emissions it takes to get goods and services to a jurisdiction. More on that another time.) The data furnished by both Stantec and the city of Victoria are thus equally "correct," based upon their own assumptions. To my mind, there are valid reasons for using either data set.

But Victoria didn't "cheat," and claiming that it did is an outrageous lie and one based on simple ignorance. Victoria's climate policymakers simply adjusted the data from Stantec to fit the norms established under the CEEI, largely for the sake of continuity, so that Victoria could consistently track its emissions going back to 2007. These kinds of decisions are made by politically neutral civil servants, not politicians who understand merely a fraction of all this.

The second conclusion follows from the first. If both data sets are essentially correct, and if the pie chart shown in the "Climate Leadership Plan" is meant to ensure continuity with past emissions inventories (dating back to the CEEI), then it makes little sense to claim that the mayor and civil servants are reworking the data to justify policy decisions. The author alleges a plot the remove single-family zoning via data manipulation. This strikes me as conspiracy-theorizing. The categories used by the city -- 1) single-family homes; 2) commercial, institutional, and multi-unit residential [i.e. large buildings]; 3) on road transport; and 4) solid and liquid waste -- are valid and make sense given the historical ways that Victoria calculates emissions.

Long story short: The article fails to demonstrate that Victoria cheated on anything. One could make a reasonable argument that Victoria should switch to the methods used by Stantec, but that's a much less sexy argument for those peddling clickbait.