Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made many promises at COP26 regarding Canada’s commitment to reduce global warming. Some were repeats, such as his promise to plant two billion trees, first made during a photo-op with environmental activist Greta Thunberg back in 2019. He also pledged to move Canada towards a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, and to reduce GHG emissions from the country’s oil and gas industry by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.
But it’s what Trudeau didn’t say that frustrates building experts like Kevin Lockhart of Efficiency Canada. Specifically, the federal government has not established direct ministerial accountability for reducing GHGs associated with the country’s construction industry.
“For our national model codes to have a role in meeting our 2030 climate targets, or the goal to be net-zero emissions by 2050, requires the federal government to define a net-zero emissions building performance standard, and connect code development to our national climate commitments,” Lockhart told the Daily Commercial News.
Nothing better demonstrates the lack of ministerial accountability regarding Canada’s global commitments than the snail’s pace development of the country’s building codes.
The 2020 National Building Code, beset by delays, won’t see daylight until early 2022. Lockhart also points out the Altered Existing Building (AEB) code is now looking at a nine-year horizon before its release. That places the AEB initiative in conflict with Canada’s own commitment to the 2016 Pan Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change calling for a model code by next year.
“The delay of the AEB, in addition to the ongoing delays in the release of the 2020 national model building code, and the continued lack of consideration for ‘net-zero emissions’ or carbon performance as an objective of the model codes, can be directly linked to the lack of ministerial accountability. The result is a lack of urgency on the part of the volunteer-led CCBFC to develop model codes that recognize, and are prepared for, our climate emergency.”
With economic self-interest top of mind, many global leaders walked back their grand pronouncements made in Glasgow once they faced media and political attention back home. Or they simply picked easy targets.
For example, Trudeau’s pledge to control GHG emissions from the country’s agriculture industry, such as livestock that burps and passes wind in open fields, is far simpler than mandating zero-carbon construction guidelines. After all, cows don’t vote.
However, Canada’s building industry does vote, and in big numbers. Approximately 1.2 million Canadians are either employed directly or indirectly in construction.
Rather than legislating change to our national and provincial building code systems so Canada meets its international obligations, the job has been left to volunteer committees, avoiding direct political backlash.
As a result, lower jurisdictions are on their own to undertake meaningful changes towards improved energy efficiency and the GHG emission reductions associated with new and existing buildings. Many have done just that.
However, as Lockhart points out, “while these sub-national efforts are gaining traction, our national model codes system will have a limited role in meeting the federal government’s more ambitious 2030 climate target.”
Internationally, major initiatives from governments are being proposed.
“The breakthrough moment we need to get to is, ‘How do we make it much harder to build bad buildings?’” asks Victoria Burrows, a director at the World Green Building Council.
Changes to taxation, mandatory whole-life carbon assessments of materials and processes, the reduction or even elimination of digging deep basements and foundations were ideas discussed at a recent event hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
Canada needs to mimic the ongoing activity of collaborative groups of industry leaders and climate organizations in Europe, like the Royal Institute of British Architects and Architects Declare, which is ramping up pressure on governments to take action.
“It’s time for the federal government to eliminate the existing disconnect,” says Lockhart, “and leverage Canada’s model codes development as a policy lever by which to deliver climate neutral buildings for all Canadians.”
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to email@example.com.