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Carbon offsets: Worth buying to fight climate change?

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If you’ve ever booked a flight with an airline like Air Canada or WestJet, you might have been offered a chance to pay money to “offset” the carbon emissions from your flight. But what exactly does that mean? Is it worthwhile? And how do you know you’re really getting what you pay for?

Here are the answers to those questions — and more about a controversial tool in the fight against climate change.

How does carbon offsetting work?

Suppose you take a Toronto-Vancouver return flight, generating 0.6 tonnes of carbon, according to carbon calculators at Less Emissions and  Carbonzero.

. And then suppose you pay someone to plant enough trees to remove one tonne of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That should theoretically “offset” the carbon emissions generated by your flight.

Carbon offsetting is a way to “cancel out” carbon emissions that have been spewed into the atmosphere. It works by letting emitters (including individuals, governments or businesses) fund and take credit for greenhouse gas reductions from a different project or activity elsewhere.

“They are a tool that’s available to get further reductions [globally] than we would have otherwise achieved,” says Christine Carter, sales and marketing manager for Canadian offset vendor Less Emissions. It’s a subsidiary of clean-energy provider Bullfrog Power that sells most of its offsets to Air Canada passengers wanting to offset their flights.

What generates carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets can be generated and sold from any activity that reduces the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. That can include things like:

  • Planting trees or other activities that store carbon in the land or water instead of the air.
  • Gas-capture projects that prevent emissions from reaching the atmosphere, such as ones that trap methane from decomposing garbage in landfills.
  • Clean energy or development projects that displace fossil fuels, such as wind turbines to replace a fossil fuel-burning power plant or chlorine stations to treat water so it doesn’t have to be boiled using fossil fuels or wood.

Capturing methane and carbon dioxide emitted by landfills is one way to reduce carbon emissions, and carbon offsets are sometimes sold from that type of project. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Who buys carbon offsets?

Governments and businesses may buy and trade offsets as a cheaper or easier way for them to meet emissions reduction targets.

“It gives companies flexibility and it helps to lessen the economic pain that might come from requiring reductions at the source,” says Kate Ervine, an associate professor of international development studies at St. Mary’s University in Halifax who does research on carbon offsets.

They’re particularly attractive for industries that rely heavily on fossil fuels.

The UN is launching a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) starting in 2021, requiring participating airlines to purchase offsets for emissions above 2020 levels on certain routes.

But individuals can buy carbon offsets too. Perhaps you’ve been offered carbon offsets at the checkout while making an online purchase. In that context, they’re marketed as a way to:

  • Reduce the impact of activities such as air travel or shipping, where you may not have a low-carbon alternative.
  • Support emission-reduction projects.

And many of those have side benefits, says Carter of Less Emissions. For example, her company offers offsets from a project that provides chlorine stations to treat water in Eastern Uganda so people don’t have to boil it using fossil fuels and wood. The project says it reduces water-borne diseases and pollution.

Do carbon offsets actually cut emissions?

That depends on how you look at it.

If you follow Carter’s argument, and the projects wouldn’t be funded another way, the short answer is yes.

On the other hand, once you take a flight, the emissions have already gone into the atmosphere. While your offsets may reduce future emissions, they won’t remove what’s already been emitted. And they’ll only “cancel out” what you already emitted, at most.

“Offsets don’t reduce emissions,” says Ervine. “It’s about keeping things the same.”

How accurate are the calculations?

There’s some disagreement about this.

Offset providers say they’re very precise, but inputting good data is important.

Less Emissions and CarbonZero say they use rigorous methods for monitoring and calculating emissions reductions from their offsetting projects, which are audited and certified by third parties.

But researchers such as Ervine don’t think that’s enough. “There’s a lot of guesswork that goes into it,” she says.

That’s largely because calculated emissions “reductions” need to be compared to what the emissions would have been if the offsetting project hadn’t happened. But that’s impossible to know for sure.

There’s also a financial incentive to choose a baseline scenario with inflated emissions, and there’s evidence that happens — perhaps most famously a case uncovered in 2010 when Chinese firms generated huge greenhouse gas emissions so they could get extra credit for reducing them.

Have carbon offset programs improved?

Everyone we talked to thought so.

Many people describe the carbon offsetting world a decade ago as a “wild west” full of “carbon cowboys.”

Some advocates suggest making a point of supporting offset projects, such as clean energy, that help transition economies away from fossil fuels. However, a European Commission report found that energy projects often would have been funded anyway, even if the offsets were not sold. (Patrick Pleul/dpa via Associated Press)

In 2010, a Christian Science Monitor and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting investigation revealed that many carbon offset projects were never completed.

For example, the Vatican bought offsets for all its 2007 emissions to reach its goal of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral state. The money it spent was slated to fund the planting of thousands of trees in Hungary. But none were ever planted.

The investigation found other projects were getting paid for work they were doing anyway, and some that had negative impacts on local populations, such as a wind farm that displaced local farmers and didn’t end up generating the expected amount of power.

There’s widespread agreement from the experts who talked to CBC News that things have improved.

Word of the scams led to more rigorous methods, better regulation, and more stringent certification and third-party verification of projects, Ervine said. Project developers realized they needed more credibility and legitimacy “’cause if you don’t have it, then people won’t buy your product.”

Even so, a 2016 study found that emissions reductions are likely overestimated in 85 per cent of 7,700 offset projects to date and 73 per cent of the offsets available for 2013 to 2020 under the European Union’s carbon trading scheme.

How can I maximize my effect?

Ervine recommends making sure the offsets come from a reputable source and are verified and certified by a reputable, well-recognized organization.

Many standards focus on ensuring not just that the project is real but that it’s:

  • Additional. The greenhouse gas reductions wouldn’t have happened if it they weren’t funded by offsets. The European Commission study found this usually was the case for landfill gas capture projects, but not for most energy-related projects, such as wind power, hydroelectric or heat recovery.

  • Permanent. This is a bigger risk for projects that involve forests or other land use-based carbon storage, as the forests could be cut down or destroyed by pests or fires before all the emissions reductions have been generated. They need to be insured against that.

  • Not subject to “leakage.” That’s where emission reductions in one area result in greater emissions somewhere else, such as if forest protection in one area leads to logging in another area.

Ervine, Carter and some others also advocate choosing projects that specifically help the world transition off fossil fuels.

It’s also important to make sure the project is registered with a carbon offset registry, said Dan Fraleigh of CarbonZero. That ensures offsets are only sold once and not double-counted.

Projects should also be monitored to make sure they’re doing what they promised, but not all projects have the resources to do that, Ervine cautioned.

Reducing your carbon emissions directly, by making choices like cycling instead of driving, is much better than trying to offset your emissions after the fact, experts say. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The takeaway

Everyone interviewed for this article agreed there’s no substitute for directly reducing emissions through choices like eating a plant-based diet, cycling and walking more instead of driving, using green energy or avoiding air travel.

“People and businesses and government should be taking any action available to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by choosing green alternatives,” said Carter of Less Emissions.

But in cases where there are no feasible green alternatives, such as important long-distance air travel, offsets can theoretically make a difference and support projects that help the world transition to a lower-carbon economy.

Ervine says people need to be clear about what that can and can’t do.

“You might be supporting a decent project. But … you still emitted those emissions. It’s not about lowering emissions,” she said. “There’s a risk that it makes you think you’re doing something you’re not.”

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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