Just a few years ago, it seemed carbon offsetting might be one of the best responses to society's emissions-heavy habits.
Commuting to work by car, fleeing to Punta Cana for a winter reprieve or running a business with some less-than-green practices all could be forgiven -- well, partially mitigated anyway -- by investing in a landfill gas capture system or reforestation project or fuel-efficient stoves in a developing country.
Individuals, businesses and governments could clean up their lifestyle and buy carbon offsets for the rest of their greenhouse gas-emitting activities.
The New Oxford American Dictionary went so far as to declare "carbon neutral" its word of the year in 2006.
And a North American cap-and-trade system requiring heavy emitters to buy carbon credits if they went over a set emissions cap seemed a plausible next step.
Fast forward to 2011, when Canada became the first nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Accord. The move, following the international climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, drew criticism at home and internationally, though Canada was already off track to meet its Kyoto targets.
On a local level, Conservation Minister Dave Chomiak admitted Manitoba wouldn't meet its own Kyoto goals even before Canada's headline-making move.
And cap-and-trade? Though some systems are in place elsewhere in the world and a program involving a handful of states and provinces is going ahead, the notion of a continental system had fallen off the radar well before Durban.
It's all a little disheartening for Climate Change Connection project manager Curt Hull: carbon offsets were meant to be "the last step in a serious campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
"We're just not taking the serious action, the first, second and third steps, let alone the offsets. The offsets are supposed to be the icing on the cake, but the cake's not there."
Of the offsetting that is happening, most is voluntary, said Matt Horne, director of the climate change program for The Pembina Institute.
Offsetters, a six-year-old company based in Vancouver, has sold offsets to groups including Aimia (the parent company of Aeroplan), the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and Vancity credit union. Offsetters' projects include a British Columbia cement producer reducing its coal use and a greenhouse operator switched from a natural gas to a biomass boiler, reducing emissions in the process.
Individual purchases of offsets have remained modest, a market Offsetters CEO and founder James Tansey calls the least-developed.
"A small percentage of Canadians are doing that because they think it's the right thing to do," said Horne. "Most are not. It's a pretty small slice of the overall picture."
Individual offset buys are often linked to air travel: Air Canada has sold $285,000 worth of offsets since its program launched in 2007. But few airlines make the option front and centre, requiring interested buyers to dig around on their sites to find them. Under WestJet's arrangement with Carbonzero announced this week, ticket buyers can get offsets for their flights by clicking a link in their confirmation email.
Air Canada used to have the offset buying option included in its online ticket buying process, but scrapped that last year as part of a larger effort to simplify online booking. Like WestJet, buyers now get their information via their ticket receipt.
Student Ian Dyck has bought offsets for flights to Australia and the United Kingdom, and thinks airlines could do a better job of promoting the option to buyers who might not be familiar with the process.
"Okay, I can buy a carbon offset, but what's the benefit? What's the payoff? I don't think that's really clear," he said.
Dyck also suspects there might be a false impression that offsets are expensive, pointing out a $2,000 flight offset came in at around $23 for him. "A flight like that generates a ton of C02 for that one journey, that one round trip for you," he said.
B.C. airline Harbour Air, another of Offsetters' clients, decided to incorporate the cost of offsets into ticket prices, a rare move for an airline.
"They just decided it was part of what they thought the company should be about," said Tansey.
The idea of a cap-and-trade system to regulate large emitters hasn't fallen off the radar completely in North America; the Western Climate Initiative, a group of American states and Canadian provinces set to start their own system, is still in the works. But the program has experienced challenges: in November it was reported half a dozen states had withdrawn, and the only remaining members are California, B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Of those, Horne said California and Quebec are fully on board, while British Columbia and Ontario have done much of the legwork required.
Manitoba has yet to put a timeline in place. A spokeswoman said the province remains a WCI participant, but wants to see how the program plays out for other participants in its first year, 2012.
Outside of cap-and-trade, a few provinces have regulations that incorporate offsets, said Horne, such as the B.C. government's decision to make its own operations carbon neutral and Alberta's regulations for large industrial emitters.
Though cap-and-trade progress is far from what early proponents anticipated, the level of sophistication among consumers and third-party verifiers about the quality of offsets has increased, said Tansey.
That scrutiny is also occurring on a government scale: In November Alberta's offset program was criticized by the province's auditor general, who said inadequate guidance from the province over how to measure and verify offsets meant some of them might not have happened.
When it comes to voluntary offsets, Hull suspects the events of Durban might point to one of the reasons why individual interest remains low.
"This is a global problem, and if you feel like you're the only person dealing with it, it's hard to think that your actions are worthwhile," he said.
"We're not getting that leadership from the people that we expect to get leadership from."
CO2e: a definition
A carbon dioxide equivalent is a metric measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential. CO2e units are used in calculating carbon offsets.