Canada’s Green Building Agenda: Time for an Upgrade?

Is it possible to reduce energy use and GHG emissions by 2025 in existing Canadian buildings by 40 per cent over 2007 levels?

Canadians spend more than 90 per cent of their time indoors. Considering our escalating climate change crisis, buildings should be designed to operate efficiently. Furthermore, building occupants should be aware of how their simple activities translate into energy consumption. Buildings should be designed appropriately to support our climate goals, to provide a comfortable and healthy indoor environment, and to be durable, all while accommodating current and future uses.

Much of Canada’s building stock simply does not meet such basic criteria. In recent years non-environmental considerations often took priority over energy efficient design and occupant comfort. Much of the existing building stock is inefficient in its design and operation, and as a result these buildings consume more energy than is necessary, primarily through heat loss and overuse of mechanical systems.

The good news is that, working together, private companies and NGOs and universities have been creating important tools and valuable partnerships. These are focused on building capacity, fostering innovation, cultivating demand and awareness. The net effect is that high-performance carbon neutral design and construction is becoming the baseline. It is now seen as complementary to, and of equal importance to, other vitally important design considerations such as health and safety.

Current regulations in Canada for new buildings are competitive with, or better than, other jurisdictions across North America. Until recently, efforts to green buildings in Vancouver did not adequately address the performance of existing buildings. We can mandate that new construction is built green, but this only gradually transforms our overall building stock. It is more challenging to improve the performance of existing buildings that are already in operation than to mandate design requirements to new buildings. Both targets are consistent with international best practices for carbon reduction in the built environment and are supported by the latest climate science as being necessary for climate change mitigation.

One smart initiative would be to mandate all new buildings be carbon neutral by 2025. The City of Vancouver has adopted a working definition of carbon neutral buildings for purposes of this target as: “carbon neutrality is achieved through a process of measuring emissions, reducing the use of carbon-based energy sources and producing the required energy through renewable sources or offsetting any emissions such that there is no net carbon emitted through the operation of a building.”

When it comes to greening Vancouver, there is a great deal of potential in existing buildings: they account for 55 per cent of citywide GHG emissions; and half of those emissions come from residential buildings, both multi-unit and single family dwellings. As the number one source of emissions by a substantial margin, any reduction in energy consumption and GHG emissions in the building sector will have a significant impact on Vancouver’s overall GHG footprint.

Energy is cheap in most parts of Canada. In such places this means that homeowners, tenants, and business owners are not responding to price signals, which would otherwise serve to motivate them to conserve energy.

Another challenge is the “split incentive” wherein landlords and developers are not inclined to pursue energy efficiency design or retrofits, as tenants and purchasers are responsible for paying their utility bills, and therefore it is the tenant that benefits from the savings. Cost is a barrier to retrofitting existing buildings; owners will only pursue upgrades with very short paybacks. First costs, borne by the developer, are also perceived as a barrier in new construction. Additionally, there is an industry capacity barrier. In both the new construction sector and the retrofit sector, there is clearly a pressing need for education, training and capacity-building, with a focus on energy efficient design, construction and operations.

Looking out one to three years, what are some of the highest priority short-term actions?

  • Update building bylaws with the aim of increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Develop and promote financing tools for building retrofits;
  • Use price signals in permit fees to reward energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions in new and existing buildings;
  • Reduce actual energy demand by 50 per cent. This reduction is in absolute terms [kwh/m2/yr], as compared to a 2010 baseline. Specific building sector reduction targets will be identified by further technical analysis and review;
  •  Supply the remainder through renewable energy sources. This will come, for example, from renewable district heating, solar thermal, geothermal etc.

To achieve this target, governments need to focus, firstly, on energy conservation, and secondly on supplying renewable energy. Where necessary, it is critical to make use of low GHG intensity grid-supplied electricity for applications that require high quality energy. The strategy must be to ensure that carbon-heavy electricity is used conservatively for processes where no other suitable replacement is available. The purchase of offsets will be used as a last-case scenario, as a bridging mechanism in special cases where a plan to achieve renewable energy on-site may require a longer development horizon.

While achieving this improved efficiency, minimum requirements for renewable energy in new buildings must also be introduced for the purposes of heating and air conditioning spaces. This renewable energy can be provided either on- or off-site and will focus on the generation of heat.

As regards existing buildings, the overall approach to achieving this target is to encourage energy efficiency upgrades through several key tools, such as:

  • regulation and market mechanisms;
  • the development of accessible, affordable energy efficiency services and financing programs to assist the consumer in making upgrades. (this target refers to a 20 per cent reduction on average across all buildings, so for example poor performers will target >20 per cent reduction while efficient buildings may only improve slightly).

Gordon Feller has served on the Council of Canadian Academies national panel on greening Canada, established in response to the Federal government’s request for expert advice. The final report can be read here. He has undertaken projects for companies (HP, IBM, Apple, Ford Motor, Siemens, EY, Chevron, Bechtel, Lockheed); governments (the U.S., ITU, ISO, Germany, World Bank, UN); foundations (Rockefeller, Ford); and universities (Stanford, Berkeley). Lessons learned from projects in 55+ countries in his 300+ published articles. He was an Obama/Biden appointee to emerging technologies committees established by the U.S. Congress; is a Global Fellow at The Smithsonian Institute; former director of Urban Innovation at Cisco HQ; and winner of the Prime Minister Abe Fellowship in Japan.

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