The Way Down

The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) has given the real estate industry a detailed enchiridion for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from large buildings across the country, and in so doing has demonstrated the critical role that existing buildings play in advancing Canada’s low carbon future.

The report, titled A Roadmap for Retrofits in Canada, demonstrates how targeted strategic investments in existing buildings represent a significant opportunity for substantial carbon reductions across the country. It shows how each region can contribute to meeting Canada’s climate change goals through a targeted approach to building retrofits and clean energy. Furthermore, the report provides government and industry with recommendations for increasing the uptake of building retrofits and introduces carbon as a key indicator of building performance.

The report identifies four actions that could enable large buildings in Canada to achieve up to a 51 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 compared to 2005:

  1. Recommission buildings that have yet to achieve high performance status by optimizing existing building systems for improved control and operational performance;
  2. Undertake deep retrofits in buildings to high-performance standards such as LEED, focusing on energy reduction and ensuring that key building systems such as lighting, HVAC and envelopes are upgraded;
  3. Incorporate solar or other on-site renewable energy systems in buildings;
  4. Work with jurisdictions and the private sector to switch to low-carbon fuel sources in buildings.


Developed by WSP for CaGBC, this report advances recommendations made in CaGBC’s 2016 Building Solutions to Climate Change report by analyzing how the type, size and age of large buildings, along with energy sources and the carbon intensity of regional electrical grids in Canada, can affect energy efficiency and carbon emissions. The report helps to identify which buildings would most benefit from carbon reduction actions, what actions are needed for each building type based on the regional grid carbon intensities, and what pathways are available from a policy and program perspective to accelerate the uptake of retrofits across Canada. Provincially-specific retrofit pathways are recommended that include a combination of recommissioning[i], deep retrofits[ii], renewable energy[iii], and fuel switching actions[iv].

Among its key findings, the Roadmap concludes that:

  • Achieving a 30 per cent (and potentially 51 per cent) building emissions reduction by 2030 is achievable by focusing on a targeted number of buildings that have the greatest potential to reduce carbon.
  • Buildings including office buildings, shopping malls, universities, and arenas constructed between 1960 and 1979 across all provinces represent the age class with the largest opportunity for total carbon emissions reductions.
  • Alberta and Ontario currently emit the most carbon and therefore have the greatest potential for reducing emissions. This is due to the carbon intensity of Alberta’s electricity grid and the number of large buildings in Ontario.
  • All provinces will need to prioritize recommissioning for large buildings (between 25,000 and 200,000 square feet) and deep retrofits for older buildings (over 35 years old) in order to meet the target. These two actions will reduce emissions by a collective total of 4.1 MT CO2e, providing 62 per cent of the reduction activity needed.
  • Fuel switching must be completed in 20 per cent of buildings over 35 years old across Canada. Currently, fuel switching is particularly attractive in provinces with clean electricity grids such as British Columbia, Manitoba, Québec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. In these regions, significant effort should be put into increasing the adoption of highly efficient heat pump technology. This will reduce emissions by 1.6 MT CO2e, or 25 per cent of the reduction activity needed.
  • In provinces with carbon intense electricity grids, specifically Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, 30 per cent of buildings will need to use renewable energy in order to meet the target. This will reduce emissions by 0.9 MT CO2e, representing 13 per cent of the reduction activity needed.

The report notes how no one single action will reach our carbon emission reduction targets; rather, a combination of actions is required for Canadian large buildings to achieve our climate commitments.

A Shift in Focus from Energy to Carbon

The report also emphasizes the importance of using carbon as a key indicator in evaluating building performance. While energy is often used as a proxy for carbon performance, because energy data is more readily available and relates directly to costs, evaluating a building’s energy performance alone fails to consider how carbon emissions vary between electricity grids across the country and between fuels used on site.

What this means is that building owners, managers, tenants, service providers, and policymakers need to adopt a subtle yet important shift from exclusively addressing “energy use intensity” and “energy performance” to a view that also prioritizes “total carbon footprint” and “carbon performance”.

If building performance is to be assessed based on carbon, fuel switching (electrification) will play an increasingly important role. This means making a switch from building systems that use natural gas or other carbon-intensive fuel to those that use high-efficiency electricity-based systems or low-carbon fuels like renewable biomass and low carbon district heating/cooling systems.

The report notes that in order for the switch to electrification to provide carbon benefits, it needs to take place only in regions where the electricity grid’s carbon intensity is below 530 gCO2e/kWh (assuming a conservative air source heat pump efficiency (COP) of 2.5). Electricity grids in every province in Canada are forecasted to operate below this threshold by 2027. Therefore, regions that today have carbon-intensive electricity grids (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia) will soon realize a carbon benefit from electrification.


The report makes a variety of bold recommendations for federal, provincial and regional government.

  1. Canada’s future retrofit code should include a carbon metric along with energy thresholds. A focus on energy alone will not yield the results necessary to meet our carbon targets and transition to a low-carbon economy. Carbon must be factored into the policy development for government levers that would trigger upgrades in building performance, including the retrofit code.
  2. Develop regional roadmaps for publicly-funded retrofits. Each province should develop a roadmap for retrofits to target areas where investments can yield the highest economic and environmental benefits, taking into account building size, age, choice of energy sources, regional electricity grid, and building type. The Low Carbon Economy Fund and future funding programs should seek to deploy roadmaps to yield the highest impact for carbon reductions in commercial building retrofits.
  3. Prioritize investments in retrofit projects that can scale. Investments should target opportunities to scale interventions in building performance, such as university and college campuses, hospitals and military bases, where several buildings share the same owner and management company. A campus approach to retrofits may open the door for additional opportunities to increase building performance, such as waste heat recovery and neighbourhood renewable energy systems.
  4. Support mandatory energy benchmarking program adoption. Access to data helps markets compare performance and assign value to efficient buildings, which motivates competition and improvement. In Canada, available building performance data has notable gaps. For example, in developing this report, the activity type of over one third of Canadian building assets could not be classified. Federal and provincial governments must enact and support energy benchmarking policies that will provide a foundational body of data to help owners, organizations and governments develop building performance improvement policies and programs that prioritize action on carbon.
  5. Increase investor confidence in Canada’s retrofit economy. In Canada, the retrofit ecosystem is stunted by limited access to financing, low investor confidence in performance outcomes, and high transaction costs. With no standardized measure for certifying the ROI from a building retrofit or evaluating project risks, securitization is difficult for Canadian banks and financiers. Canada can demonstrate leadership by adopting the Investor Confidence Project (ICP) to unleash investment and support the existing building retrofit market. The ICP is a standardized framework for risk assessment and verification of building retrofits that provides commercial investors and building owners with confidence in project engineering, performance outcomes, and financial returns.

A Roadmap for Retrofits in Canada will be followed by a third CaGBC report, to be published in Spring 2018, which will provide policy options that would overcome barriers that hinder the implementation of retrofit projects and identify the financing mechanisms necessary to stimulate the retrofit economy.

[i] Recommissioning: optimizing the performance and operation of an existing building’s system. Following investigation, the measures implemented can include equipment maintenance, adjustments to controls, and minor equipment retrofits. This includes things like upgrading lighting, improving indoor air quality and replacing boilers.

[ii] Deep retrofits: involves major system and equipment replacement or upgrade. Typically pursued during building renewal events such as envelope and major equipment replacement, new ownership or occupancy, and green building certification. It can include HVAC changes, window replacement, and other envelope and system upgrades.

[iii] Renewable energy: while many forms of on-site renewable energy exist, including solar thermal, biomass, wind and micro-hydro, solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity generation is most commonly used in existing buildings.

[iv] Fuel switching actions: switching natural gas and other carbon-intensive heating furnaces, boilers and distributed equipment to low carbon sources like high-efficiency electricity-based systems such as heat pumps.

Mark Bessoudo is a consultant, and Eric Chisholm is a Lead, with WSP’s Sustainability & Energy team based in Toronto. Akua Schatz is Director of Advocacy and Development at CaGBC. Visit for the full report.





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