The carbon footprint of buildings – the result of energy use for construction, maintenance and operation – accounts for about one- third of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and its reduction has to be one of the focal points in climate action discussions, says Thomas Mueller, president and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), the national organization dedicated to leading and accelerating the shift to sustainable buildings.
At the beginning of 2017, Canada counted one billion square feet of projects with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, says Mr. Mueller. "These green buildings perform well on energy and water efficiency, waste management, recycling, a healthy indoor environment and more – they also represent a high level of leadership that we can build on."
The next step, Mr. Mueller asserts, has to be even more ambitious. "The Trudeau government changed the conversation by committing to a limit of less than two degrees Celsius of global warming," he says. "With this goal, all of us need to think hard about how to get there, and this includes the building sector."
The goal to advance carbon-neutral buildings catalyzed the development of the CaGBC's Zero Carbon Building Standard, which assesses the performance of commercial, institutional and multifamily buildings and is the only program of its kind that makes carbon reductions the key indicator for building performance.
Mark Hutchinson, the CaGBC's vice-president of green building programs, says that most of the efforts in the building sector to date have been focused on improving energy performance. "Energy use is only one factor of [a building's] carbon footprint, which also depends on the carbon-intensity of the local grid and fossil fuels used, for example," he says. "Since the primary goal is curbing greenhouse gas emissions, we have to take a carbon-centric approach. Reducing emissions has to be the measure of our success.
"Since buildings are large, stationary users of energy that have long lifespans, they are prime places for investing in measures that reduce emissions," says Mr. Hutchinson.
He explains that new construction projects present an opportunity for creating low-emissions building stock for future generations. "New buildings can be designed for optimum efficiency and resiliency right from the start," he says. But since over 80 per cent of existing buildings are expected to be still in operation in 2030, a large-scale market transformation can only be achieved when the environmental performance of existing buildings is also addressed, he adds. "Deep retrofits have to be part of the plan if we want to meet the building sector's zero carbon objectives."
The good news is that Canada's green building sector is up to the task – and is among the most advanced in the world, says Mr. Hutchinson. "We are in a good position for reducing – and eventually eliminating – greenhouse gas emissions from building operations," he explains. "Over the last decade or so, green building certification programs have raised the bar for energy efficiency and sustainable building practices. As a result, the way that buildings are being designed and constructed, and subsequently maintained and operated, has already changed substantially."
Mr. Mueller says that as a framework for evaluating building performance, the Zero Carbon Building Standard can potentially enable governments to implement regulatory programs fostering greater sustainability. "A lot of green building efforts have been voluntarily, but governments are increasingly realizing the potential of the building sector for meeting environmental goals," he says. "And we want to help prepare the industry for future changes, such as more stringent building codes, prices for carbon pollution as well as energy use in general."
To ensure that the Zero Carbon Building Standard reflects the sector's needs and priorities, it was developed with extensive industry input, says Mr. Mueller. "We wanted to make sure the program is attractive to the building industry and rigorous in its outcomes. It is also designed to help property owners and managers assess their buildings' performance and gain recognition for leadership efforts."
It is Mr. Mueller's experience that there is a very strong business case associated with green buildings – and it encompasses environmental, economic and social sustainability. "Over their lifetime, sustainable buildings typically recover any additional capital costs that went into their construction or retrofit," he explains. "And the shift to sustainable practices brings very solid business and economic opportunities and benefits."
A focus on sustainability can help to guide investments towards furthering green building practices, renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, says Mr. Hutchinson. "We see the standard as a next step for getting us to a low-carbon economy and driving an innovation agenda. It's a made-in-Canada solution for addressing carbon pollution and climate change in the building sector."
Demonstrating green building leadership
The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) released its new Zero Carbon Building Standard on May 29, and 16 projects across the country have been selected to participate in a two-year pilot program that will allow them to assess – and improve – their environmental performance.
“The pilot projects represent a wide cross-section in terms of building type and geography, giving us a chance to showcase a range of solutions,” says Thomas Mueller, the CaGBC’s president and CEO. The pilot projects range in size from 20,000 to 1.3 million square feet, and include 13 new buildings, two existing buildings and one project with both new and existing building components.
Through the program, participants gain access to a group of leading professionals for advice and guidance for pursuing Zero Carbon Building – Design and Zero Carbon Building – Performance certifications. The process includes modelling a zero carbon balance, highly efficient envelope and ventilation systems, and onsite renewable energy systems, with a focus on evaluating energy use holistically, including impacts on peak electricity, and determining the greenhouse gas emissions associated with structural and envelope materials.
“At the end of the day, what matters is showing zero carbon emissions in building operations over the course of a year,” explains Mr. Mueller, who adds that the buildings will also be more energy efficient compared to conventional buildings, and owners and operators will benefit from energy savings.
Find more information about the pilot projects at cagbc.org/zerocarbonpilots.
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