Back to top

Op/Ed: Government Spending: Embrace Carbon First

CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, Derek Nighbor, says Carbon First would send a message to all Canadians and the rest of the world.

Rare in the history of our collective battle to address climate change has there been a more serendipitous opportunity for our federal, provincial and territorial governments to lead by example.

On the one hand, First Ministers at their recent Vancouver meeting underscored their commitment to move towards a low carbon economy.  On the other, in the wake of the recent global economic slowdown, governments are rolling out economic stimulus spending initiatives to support jobs and address the country’s very real infrastructure deficit.

The federal government alone is pledging to spend $60 billion over 10 years to support our economy. All levels of government in Canada spend more than $100 billion every year in goods and services. How all that money is spent will determine the size of the carbon footprint left behind.

Earlier this week, an unprecedented group of executives and senior leaders representing forestry, transportation, renewable energy, building, climate and environmental groups issued an open letter to the Prime Minister, all Premiers and Environment Ministers calling for a Carbon First principle for infrastructure spending and procurement policy decisions.

The concept of Carbon First is intended to encourage public and private sectors to select the least carbon intensive option for any project.  For example governments could invest in more climate friendly construction. 

The noted Vancouver architect, Michael Green, says that a single 100,000 square foot building made of wood instead of competing materials such as concrete would have a total carbon benefit equal to 7,380 metric tons of CO2.  And that’s the equivalent of taking 1,410 cars off the road for a year for a single building.      

There are many other examples of making climate-friendly decisions.  It could mean increased investment in public transit or shipping more goods by rail to lower transportation-related GHG emissions.  

It could mean switching from fossil fuels to green renewable energy. It could mean policies that would encourage new manufacturing processes and other innovations that would limit carbon emissions. 

Carbon First would be a principle supported by science-based carbon accounting tools such as life cycle assessments and green building programs.

Governments have a unique opportunity right now to apply this Carbon First principle when planning infrastructure spending and procurement.  They have the capacity to influence both areas through billions of dollars in associated spending and commitments every year. 

We believe that doing so will encourage the private sector to follow suit. And of course, it will help Canada achieve the ambitious goals agreed to at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

At their Vancouver meeting, the First Ministers agreed to set up working groups that would consider carbon mitigation in such areas as the build environment.  They are signaling it is now time to move beyond commitments and move toward real actions based on science-based principles and policy.

If our political leaders are indeed serious about addressing both the infrastructure deficit and our climate responsibility, then adopting a Carbon First principle is an enormous opportunity — one that would send a message to all Canadians and the rest of the world.

Derek Nighbor is the CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada