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Solar panels were installed on 60 per cent of Canada Post’s Albert Jackson processing centre which opens next year in east Toronto as a low-carbon building.Canada Post

A soon-to-open $470-million Canada Post parcel sorting centre sets a high-water mark for sustainability: It’s the country’s largest industrial project so far to meet national design standards for a zero-carbon building.

With a tight building envelope, high-efficiency lighting, occupancy sensors and solar rooftop panels, the 585,000-square-foot facility meets Canada Green Building Council design criteria for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Albert Jackson Processing Centre in east Toronto also stands out for historical reasons – it is named after the man believed to be Canada’s first Black letter carrier.

The best way to save energy is not to use it at all.

Robert Loyst, director of project delivery for corporate real estate at Canada Post

At its opening next March, the processing centre will be in the spotlight, but for the Crown corporation to achieve its goal of net-zero emissions in operations by 2050, what’s happening out of the limelight carries even more weight – planned retrofits of 3,000 existing facilities.

In June, Canada Post pledged $1-billion over 10 years for a 2050 net-zero strategy that blends the new and the old. New buildings will be designed to net-zero carbon standards while existing buildings will undergo sustainability upgrades in coming years.

Canada Post plans to switch to all-electric facilities by 2030 and fully electrify its 14,000-vehicle fleet by 2040. Still, some carbon offsets (at most 10 per cent of energy use) will be required to reach the 2050 goal.

“Climate change is real, and we have to do a lot of things to improve the future,” says Doug Ettinger, president and chief executive officer for Canada Post. “This is about risk management.”

Canada Post’s game plan hits the right note with sustainability advocates.

“The new [Jackson] building is an exemplary project,” says Mike Singleton, executive director of Sustainable Buildings Canada. “All new buildings should be built that way.” But he cautions: “The issue is not new buildings; it is the existing stock.”

Canada’s building sector accounts for about 17 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, including from electricity, with an overall carbon footprint of 30 per cent counting materials and construction, according to the Canada Green Building Council.

Mr. Singleton urges an aggressive industry commitment to retrofits. “Time is rolling on here,” he says. “We are now less than eight years away from 2030 (Ottawa’s target date to reduce emissions by 40 per cent below 2005 levels) and the scale at which things have to occur is really monumental.”

Calgary-based Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank promoting clean energy solutions, estimates 32 million square metres of commercial building retrofits will be required, at an annual cost of $6.3-billion that assumes more than business-as-usual upgrades, to yield net-zero carbon emissions in 2050.

So far, there is no national mechanism to measure progress, says Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, director of Pembina’s buildings program. “That’s one of the challenges in this space.”

For Canada Post, plans for its Jackson building began in 2018 with a simple premise.

“The best way to save energy is not to use it at all,” Robert Loyst, director of project delivery for corporate real estate at Canada Post, says of the building’s design rationale. Energy-sipping features include above-average levels of insulation, programmed door seals for truck bays, north-facing skylights, advanced air filtration and high-efficiency electrical and mechanical systems.

“We try to make our [new] buildings efficient from an operations point of view,” Mr. Loyst says. “That is the target and then we added solar on top of that.”

Solar panels cover 60 per cent of the roof, meeting 13 per cent of the building’s electricity demand and easing pressure on the provincial energy grid.

New carbon-neutral buildings neither add to nor cut emissions, observes Peter Whitred, director of environmental sustainability for Canada Post. However, existing facilities vary in age, structure and internal systems, with high potential for cutting emissions. Accordingly, he says, “existing buildings are where we need to focus.”

Last year, Canada Post ran 57 pilot projects in its building portfolio to test specific solutions for emission reductions.

At one building, the corporation added LED (light emitting diode) fixtures for energy savings but discovered higher-than-expected costs because of supplier travel time.

At another building, Canada Post experimented with solar panels but found them too heavy for the age of the roof. Instead, panels were installed nearby on the ground.

As individual pilot projects wrap up shortly, Canada Post officials plan to identify the best combination of carbon-reduction improvements for a particular building.

“If there are eight things to look at for every single building, we can say, ‘Does it make sense?’” Mr. Whitred says. “Then we go into a building and do all the interventions we need to do to get as close to net-zero emissions as possible.”

He adds: “Reducing our fossil fuel use as much as possible before having to rely on offsets is the best way of going.”

Canada Post has installed electric vehicle charging stations and designated parking spots as part of carbon-reduction retrofits of existing buildings in its portfolio.Canada Post

Canada Post’s net-zero program is consistent with the federal government’s 2017 Greening Government Strategy for departments and agencies to maintain real estate portfolios with net-zero status by 2050.

For success with its own net-zero “roadmap,” the Crown corporation depends on others.

Direct and indirect emissions by Canada Post account for 12 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions with 88 per cent contributed by suppliers. The Crown corporation, which has signed on to science-based climate targets set out by United Nations, now asks suppliers to follow the same guidelines in their operations. Also, Canada Post now includes environmental, social and governance considerations in its bidding criteria.

With federal legislation set to raise carbon prices to $170 a tonne from $65 a tonne in 2023, the retrofit task ahead is daunting. Many large Class A property owners have their own strategies for net-zero carbon buildings, but others remain slow to act, industry observers say.

“We need to do this on a war footing,” says Sustainable Building’s Mr. Singleton.

Acting now will pay dividends, adds Canada Post’s Mr. Whitred. “The earlier we get started, the better position all of us are in for the future.”