Building sustainable communities

Canada urgently needs a Green Buildings Strategy

Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

Cities and communities are at the frontlines of climate change and Canadians are feeling the day-to-day impacts from carbon pollution, poor air quality and extreme weather. One of the key areas where Canadian cities can take climate action is our built environment—the buildings and homes where we live, work and play.

Did you know that Canadians spend an average of 90 per cent of their time indoors? That’s a lot. With the increased frequency, size and intensity of wildfires reminding us of the dangers of poor air quality, not to mention more regular extreme heat waves and cold snaps, it is becoming increasingly clear how important these structures are to keeping us safe. And how significantly many of them are failing us, while emitting significant greenhouse gases (GHG) that are also making the climate crisis worse.

Buildings in Canada are responsible for a significant portion of total GHG emissions. They are the country’s third largest emitter behind oil and gas, and transportation. Building new climate-safe buildings now is critical. But it won’t solve this problem because 80 per cent of buildings that will exist in 2050 are already standing.

We urgently need to upgrade and retrofit existing homes and buildings to provide safer indoor spaces and protect us from increasingly extreme weather, while also reducing the emissions that contribute to climate change.

A comprehensive plan that addresses all issues, with enough investment and regulatory teeth to spur a transformation of our existing buildings, is needed. The much-anticipated Canada Green Buildings Strategy (CGBS) provides an opportunity for the federal government to tackle this challenge head-on and achieve net-zero emissions for buildings through deep retrofits, electrification, and (yes) new net-zero buildings.

But it needs to be released now to kickstart that change before things get worse.

Protecting lives and economy

Extreme weather has been on the rise in Canada, leading to devastating impacts on both human lives and our economy. The extreme weather events of 2021, documented as the most severe in the past 26 years by Environment and Climate Change Canada, caused billions of dollars in damages and in many cases, the loss of lives. Take the scorching heat dome that hit British Columbia that summer, claiming the lives of over 600 people. They died of heat-related conditions in their homes and places of care.

The B.C. and federal governments called for early warning systems and the creation of more cooling centres. But what is a low-income person with limited mobility living in substandard housing supposed to do with that advanced warning if they do not have access to an air conditioning unit, or can’t afford the cost to turn it on? How can they open a window if the air outside is too smoky or hot (or both) to help? How are they supposed to get to that new cooling centre?

Every Canadian deserves to have housing that keeps them safe.

This tragic event serves as a stark reminder that the resilience of our buildings is crucial. We need homes that can withstand the challenges posed by our changing climate. By improving insulation, air sealing and ventilation, and removing inefficient, gas powered furnaces and boilers and replacing them with energy efficient electric heat pumps that also provide cooling, we can enhance the overall performance and durability of our buildings, while also reducing their emissions.

A sustainable home is an affordable home

While the urgency of climate action is clear, it is equally important to ensure it doesn’t impact affordablity.

Here’s the good news: energy efficient upgrades for buildings not only reduce emissions, and increase quality of life, they also improve affordability. By upgrading insulation, air sealing and ventilation in existing buildings, we can effectively prevent energy loss and maintain a comfortable indoor environment – even without cooling, these upgrades help make a home more comfortable. This not only reduces energy bills but also enhances air quality, which benefits our health and well-being.

And let's talk about heat pumps—they're game-changers. Compared to traditional furnaces, they're much more energy efficient, and can result in significant reductions in heating costs – and they provide cooling in the summer months. Embracing heat pumps and other sustainable solutions not only saves money but also contributes to a greener future by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

While essential to our long-term physical and financial health, and the wellbeing of our planet, none of these things come cheap. To accelerate the transition to sustainable buildings, the CGBS must include substantial public investments. These investments will not only help leverage private capital to build a new renovation economy, but also ensure that every Canadian has access to the funds needed to upgrade their homes, especially low-income households.

Making these investments is smart; environmentally and financially. A wave of renovations to upgrade existing homes across Canada could create long-lasting well-paying jobs for up to 200,000 people per year – that’s approximately the same number of people employed in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction combined in Canada in 2022. What’s more, this emerging industry could generate more than $48 billion in economic development each year. That’s more than agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting combined contributed to the Canadian economy in 2022.

Gas lock-in: A costly mistake

One critical aspect that requires immediate attention is the issue of gas infrastructure lock-in. If we delay the transition away from fossil fuel-heated buildings, we are not only perpetuating harmful emissions but also committing ourselves to costly and unsustainable gas infrastructure.

As the volatile costs of fossil-based and renewable natural gas continues to rise, Canadians will face escalating expenses in the future. By including a clear roadmap for phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure in the CGBS, we can avoid this financial burden and move towards a cleaner and more cost-effective energy system.

The urgency for the federal government to release and start implementing the CGBS in partnership with provinces cannot be overstated. This is an essential step towards creating healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities for all Canadians, and the time to start is now.

Let’s make Canada a global leader in green building practices – not just for new homes but for the ones already standing – and forge a path towards a sustainable future.

You can read more about our recommendations for an effective CGBS in our latest report, Getting Canada’s homes in order: Opportunities for transformative action through the Canada Green Building Strategy.