'Carbon Hunters' doc explores people behind little-understood carbon trading business

Kevin Smith: cap-and-trade rewards large polluters and does little to stop global warming
23 November 2009
In the media

A new documentary "Carbon Hunters" deals with carbon trading

VANCOUVER, B.C. - There is a scene in the new documentary "Carbon Hunters" where actor Harrison Ford has a chunk of hair ripped off his chest with hot wax, all in the name of helping save rainforests.

The clip from the "Lost Here, Felt There" public service video is an example of how far some will go to draw attention to the impact of global warming, and it fits well in a film about how far others will go to make money from it.

"Carbon Hunters" follows Shawn Burns, a new breed of entrepreneur who tries to earn a living putting a price on pollution.

As chief executive of Vancouver-based Carbon Credit Corp., Burns finds people who are cutting back their greenhouse gas emissions, generating what is called carbon credits.

These credits come from farmers in Alberta who have stopped turning the soil before planting a new crop, or those in India who are using treadle pumps for irrigation to replace carbon-emitting diesel pumps.

Burns, and other carbon hunting firms like his, package those credits and sell them to heavy industrial polluters.

"I think you can make money and save the planet at the same time. And I think you should," said Burns.

But not everyone sees buying and selling of pollution as an enviable business.

Kevin Smith, of the environmental group Carbon Trade Watch, argues in the documentary that the so-called cap-and-trade system rewards large polluters and does little to stop global warming.

Smith said it also gives some businesses the "environmental credibility they don't deserve."

Vancouver journalist Miro Cernetig, who wrote and directed the documentary, thought carbon trading was just a fad at first.

"I was skeptical about it, and still am," Cernetig said in an interview.

But Cernetig said it's hard to ignore the global carbon market, which today is valued at more than $100 billion.

Europe has a full carbon market, currently the world's largest, while the U.S. is close to setting up its own system.

In Canada, some carbon credits are traded through the Montreal Climate Exchange.

Cernetig said the jury is still out on how viable the carbon market is long-term, given the commodity is essentially invisible.

"Nobody knows if cap-and-trade will work. A lot of smart people think it will, a lot of smart people think it won't," he said.

Cernetig's film also explains how Canadians helped create the carbon trading model.

The idea came from Canadian-born Maurice Strong, the former head of the then-national oil firm Petro-Canada and later Ontario Hydro, who suggested such a model when he was a United Nations official heading the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Carbon Hunters, which is produced by Vancouver-based Force Four Entertainment, airs Thursday night on CBC TV's Doc Zone.