Green rhetoric, unsustainable policy: The environmental argument for renovating 24 Sussex
While the CBC report that the Justin Trudeau government is considering alternate sites to replace 24 Sussex Drive as the Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Canada was a blatant “trial balloon” — a story released by government to gauge public support for the issue in question — it raises serious questions regarding the government’s commitment to a sustainable future for Canada.
Since 2015, Trudeau has made sustainability a key issue of his government, trolling for virtue-points with “green” rhetoric at every opportunity, however there is nothing “green” about replacing 24 Sussex.
Demolition over renovation is, in fact, the opposite of “green.”
Debris from building demolition accounted for 27 per cent of all landfill deposits in Canada during 2012. According to Environment Canada, solid waste generated in 2018 reached 25.7 million tonnes. Using the 2012 statistic, an unsustainable 6.9 million tonnes came from building demolition.
We call it “waste” for good reason.
A 2004 paper by then Forintek Canada — a wood products research institute — found that, “Most buildings are demolished for reasons that have nothing to do with the physical state of the structural systems… Our overriding conclusion is that no meaningful relationship exists between structural material and average service life.”
This prevailing ethos of destruction in Canada resides in large part within the Income Tax Act, which offers lucrative tax advantages to owners with a wrecking-ball. These advantages were the brainchild of William Clifford Clark, deputy minister of finance between 1932 and 1952. Clark disliked old buildings, and it was the age of “planned obsolescence.” His overhaul of the tax codes created a market dynamic heavily biased toward demolition over renovation, which still exists today.
Part of Clark’s legacy is 6.9 million tonnes of landfill waste annually, and the destruction of countless perfectly useful buildings.
In the intervening decades since Clark, his policies have served to engender a zeitgeist of perpetual demolition and re-building in Canada. Governments view the cycle as good for business, and Canadians have become psychologically numb to the frequent destruction of cherished heritage buildings.
There is another sustainability issue with demolition, however. On the opposite side of waste is supply.
If we demolish a building and replace it with a new building, we need to supply new materials: timber; gypsum wall board; electrical cabling; piping; ducting; structural steel members; windows; flooring; insulation; roofing materials; lighting; and concrete. Lots of concrete. The primary constituent of which is cement, the magic pixie-dust of construction.
Today, the world consumes four billion tons of cement a year, and — barring the advent of some better building material, or an unforeseen drop in population growth — that number will continue to rise. The International Energy Agency forecasts an increase in cement production over the next 30 years to five billion tons per year. Bill Gates quotes an estimate that the world will add two trillion square feet of buildings by 2060, the “equivalent of building another New York City every month for the next 40 years.”
Usually absent from the prevailing narrative on global warming and the need for sustainable technologies is the fact that the chemical and thermal combustion processes involved in cement production leave a large carbon footprint, accounting for approximately eight per cent of global CO2 emissions annually. By comparison, total greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector — the bête noire of the green movement — are only four per cent higher. If the concrete industry were a country, it would rank third in CO2 emissions, behind only China and the United States.
Every new building adds to the carbon emissions from cement production, not to mention the carbon footprint resulting from the harvesting, mining, and manufacturing of the many other materials required for construction.
A 2021 report by NRDC, Nature Canada, Environmental Defence, and Nature Quebec found that the government had under-reported emissions from the forestry sector as 4.2 Mt CO2-equivalent. The real number, it said, should be 80 Mt CO2-equivalent — that’s 80 mega tonnes — almost 10 per cent of Canada’s total annual emissions.
So when the government announces that it is considering a new facility for 24 Sussex — a perfectly serviceable building in need of renovation — it is difficult for Canadians to credit the Trudeau commitment to a sustainable future. While Clifford Clark would likely approve, planned obsolescence is simply not sustainable.
The political optics are bad. It appears as though all the “green” rhetoric is just that. Rhetoric.