In December 2016, the Pan Canadian Framework cited sustainable buildings as one of the means to attain reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, specifying key measures to help drive down the industry’s emissions. This watershed moment for the green building industry put a spotlight on building performance as a critical solution to climate change.
Changing the conversation – reducing carbon emissions in commercial, institutional and multi-family buildings
Building on the industry’s progress, the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) has been working to spearhead the next evolution of green building, aimed at meeting the needs of the emerging low-carbon economy. Launched on May 29, the CaGBC’s Zero Carbon Building Standard is a critical step toward mitigating building emissions. As Canada’s first green building program to make carbon emissions the key indicator for building performance, the Standard positions Canada in an elite group of countries working on similar initiatives, including Australia, France, Brazil and the United States.
Recognizing carbon emissions as a key indicator of building performance is an important and fundamental shift for our industry. To date, regulators and those incenting carbon emission reductions (including CaGBC) have focused on energy efficiency; however, the most important factor in the carbon footprint of a building is often not its energy performance, but the carbon intensity of the electricity and fossil fuels used. Recognizing the differences in regional electrical grids and fuel choices is, therefore, critical to accurately assessing environmental impacts and guiding investments.
The CaGBC Zero Carbon Building program reinforces the importance of energy efficiency, while also driving careful choices about the types of energy used and encouraging more renewable energy generation both on the building site and offsite.
Why Canada’s CRE industry needs to take notice of the shift to low carbon
CaGBC is not alone in expanding from a strict focus on energy efficiency. Regulators are increasingly recognizing the importance of addressing building emissions holistically, and carbon is bound to become increasingly important to both new construction and the operation of existing buildings. For example, the City of Vancouver’s updated Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings includes GHG intensity requirements, and Toronto is considering the same. On the existing buildings front, the Province of Ontario recently mandated energy and water reporting for large buildings, and others are planning to follow suit; it is not at all inconceivable that carbon emissions will also be part of reporting and disclosure requirements at some point in the future. Finally, all Canadian provinces will soon be impacted by one form or another of carbon pricing, changing how different forms of energy impact operating costs.
Leaders that are quick to address building emissions will benefit from recognition while future-proofing their assets, positioning themselves for long-term savings and securing their place in the growing low-carbon economy.
Simplicity and flexibility are key to the Zero Carbon Building Standard
The ultimate measure of success is the actual volume of carbon emissions from building operations year over year. In order to recognize the inherent limitations of existing buildings, the requirements of the CaGBC’s Zero Carbon Building Standard have been kept minimal, focusing primarily on the key outcome: reduced carbon emissions. Cost effectiveness is enhanced by providing the flexibility to drive carbon reductions by whatever means make the most sense for a given building. This can include energy efficiency measures, fuel-switching and generating renewable energy on the building site or off-site.
The themes of simplicity and flexibility also apply to the requirements for the design of new construction projects. Recognizing that the design stage provides a unique opportunity to make decisions that will yield reliable long-term carbon reductions, a couple of key design elements were incorporated in order to guide industry. Specifically, there are requirements for thermal energy demand intensity (a measure of the building envelope and ventilation strategies) and for on-site renewable energy generation. Both of these strategies are going to be key to meeting carbon emission reduction targets in the long run.
Shifting the focus to emissions and providing flexibility to meet a zero carbon balance creates an opportunity to apply new approaches, technologies and products, spurring Canadian innovation along the way.
One step at a time
Carbon emissions are going to be a key metric of building performance going forward, both for environmental and economic reasons. The CaGBC, through the release of the Zero Carbon Building Standard, is providing commercial, institutional and multi-family asset owners and managers with a framework, developed through extensive industry consultation, which allows them to begin the process of transitioning to the low-carbon economy of the future.
The Standard is not intended to overwhelm with the possible challenges of immediately achieving a zero carbon balance. Rather, it aims to raise awareness of the growing importance of carbon emissions, provide a framework for assessing those emissions and inform strategies to reduce them.
To start learning about zero carbon for your buildings, visit cagbc.org/zerocarbon.
Mark Hutchinson is vice-president of Green Building Programs at the Canada Green Building Council