Increased attention on climate action is advancing the building sector’s intent and commitment to reduce carbon emissions from Canada’s buildings. Thomas Mueller, president and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), believes this is the turnaround decade when Canada must accelerate carbon reductions in the built environment through purposeful action.
“Conditions have never been better in terms of government policy, sustainable finance and public awareness – with 80 per cent of Canadians supporting climate action,” he says. “But meeting our emissions reduction goals requires focused action and accountability.”
While every sector has a role in tackling climate change, improving the environmental performance of buildings promises significant rewards. With advancing green building technologies and a growing list of incentives – like government support, carbon taxes and other financial levers – plus the made-in-Canada Zero Carbon Building Standard, Mr. Mueller believes Canada is in a strong position to assume a leadership role.
Akua Schatz agrees. “The transition [to a low-carbon economy] is going to be challenging, but the building sector is best placed to deliver impact,” says the vice-president, Advocacy and Market Engagement, CaGBC. “Compared to other industries, it’s easier to mobilize and realize significant emission reductions at relatively low cost.”
More and more organizations look to green building approaches to help improve their environmental footprint, says Ms. Schatz. “With all these developments and tools, we can get to a point of exponential growth in green building activity. It’s time to move on from the idea that green building is niche and exclusive – to something that is mainstream.”
Building on a strong foundation
According to research by the Institute for Sustainable Finance at Queen’s University, the building sector is the only sector where action on carbon reduction is directly linked to better returns on investment. This already favourable cost-benefit ratio can be further improved by incentives, and Mr. Mueller says the CaGBC is working with the federal government, provincial governments and municipalities to advance access to financing and support.
“For example, the federal government will build all new buildings to zero-carbon standards by 2030 and only lease space in zero-carbon buildings. And that’s in addition to implementing a healthy retrofit agenda for government buildings,” he says. “In essence, the government is helping to de-risk zero-carbon buildings for the rest of the industry through procurement.”
Policies and regulatory tools can serve as “carrot and stick,” explains Ms. Schatz. “Building codes are moving faster and further – to where both new and existing buildings have to meet certain carbon thresholds at both national and local levels.”
Examples of incentives come from Infrastructure Canada’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program, which offers funding support for zero- or low-carbon buildings, as well as the Canadian Infrastructure Bank, which provides financing mechanisms with low interest rates for both commercial and public building owners looking to undertake deep energy-efficiency renovations or retrofits.
Achieving scale through retrofits
Buildings generate about 30 per cent of carbon emissions from a combination of operational and embodied carbon. And since about 70 to 80 per cent of today’s buildings will still exist in 2030, a focus on new buildings is not enough, says Mr. Mueller. “While we need new green buildings to create the low-carbon, healthy building stock of the future, retrofits are essential for immediately reducing emissions because they avoid many of the carbon emissions associated with new construction.”
In Canada, to reach a 30 per cent emissions reduction, about 50,000 to 60,000 large buildings need to be retrofitted. And since most buildings are due for major renovations, such as HVAC systems or envelope upgrades, once every 30-plus years, it’s critical that every retrofit considers carbon emissions and embodied carbon as well as energy efficiency.
The CaGBC will soon release a new report examining the business case for retrofits that result in deep carbon reductions. One of the report’s major takeaways is that building retrofits are effective, and “any improvements can immediately reduce carbon emissions,” says Mr. Mueller.
While office and municipal buildings, warehouses and distribution centres are among the lowest hanging fruit for carbon reductions, Mr. Mueller says the report will give the industry an informed idea of how different building types can reach zero carbon and inspire confidence that it can be done at a reasonable cost.
Preparing the ground for exponential growth
Over the past 15 years, the CaGBC has strengthened the green building sector, working with a range of professionals – from designers, architects, engineers, contractors and tradespeople to owners, developers, suppliers and manufacturers – to create awareness and expertise.
Results are evident, says Mr. Mueller. “When we brought LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] into Canada over a decade ago, people said, ‘This won’t work; it’s too expensive.’ Now, we have about 1.4 billion square feet of projects in our program.”
From 2015 to now, employment numbers in the green building sector have more than doubled, says Ms. Schatz. To further boost capacity, the CaGBC is partnering with educational institutions, unions and trade associations to advance green building skills for people entering the industry as well as working professionals.
“These skills lead to good, well-paying jobs related to the low-carbon economy,” says Mr. Mueller, adding that market surveys show that the green building sector employs hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and professionals and has saved millions of tonnes of carbon emissions.
Accelerating the path to zero
The CaGBC has created paths for new buildings and retrofits through the Zero Carbon Building Standard, which will be updated later this month to address a broader range of building types.
Canadian leaders are proving that efforts to reduce carbon in buildings have significant impact. Today, there are 25 certified buildings under the Zero Carbon Building Standard with many more registered. Among the certified buildings is architecture firm Lemay’s Montreal headquarters, a retrofit of an abandoned 1950s industrial building, and KingSett Capital’s retrofit of 40 King Street West, a 69-storey retrofit in downtown Toronto.
As signatories to the World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, Lemay and Canadian companies, such as Armstrong Fluid Technology, B+H Architecture, and the cities of Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto have affirmed Canada’s growing commitment to carbon reduction on a global stage.
“While it’s great to see leaders emerge, we also need to expand the tent,” says Mr. Mueller. “Starting that journey is as simple as identifying opportunities in building portfolios to consider carbon emissions. With the right transition plan in place, almost any building can achieve zero carbon.”
More information at http://www.cagbc.org.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Canada Green Building Council. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.