Canada’s building industry “still has work to do” to acquire the skills and knowledge it’ll need to deliver zero-carbon buildings at scale, even based on the country’s current greenhouse gas reduction target of just 30% by 2030, the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) concludes in a report issued last week.
“Transitioning to zero-carbon buildings offers significant emissions reductions, but it also requires a shift in thinking and practice across the building sector,” CaGBC President and CEO Thomas Mueller said in a release. “Skilled job training is a critical element in shifting the industry toward a knowledgeable and prepared application of zero-carbon building practices which will make a positive impact on Canada’s climate goals.”
To produce the report, Accelerating to Zero: Upskilling for Engineers, Architects, and Renewable Energy Specialists, CaGBC says it surveyed 318 building professionals and compared their technical knowledge to the “core competencies and sub-competencies” the building industry would need to deliver on a zero-carbon promise. “The study found that barriers to zero-carbon skills acquisition still exist,” the release states, even though decisions by the three professional groupings “play a significant role in achieving a zero-carbon building”.
A week before the report release, low-carbon analysts Ralph Torrie and Céline Bak published a detailed roadmap for a mass, deep energy retrofit program that would upgrade 60% of Canada’s existing housing stock in 10 years and combine efficiency upgrades with heat pump conversions. The focus on existing buildings is crucial because “most of the housing that will exist 30 years from now is already standing,” they explain, “locking in 65 million tonnes of carbon emissions unless we intervene.”
The plan would create 220,000 jobs, reduce energy costs by one-third and greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, and—at a cost of $250 per square metre—deliver the carbon cuts at an estimated -$36 to +$74 per tonne.
“This investment in deep retrofits presents two important additional opportunities,” they wrote. “The deep retrofit of our homes, hospitals, schools, and offices would free up existing electricity capacity for the conversion of our private cars to electric vehicles (EVs). The absolute drop in electricity consumption from the combined residential and commercial building retrofit would be more than enough to power an EV fleet of 13 million, more than one EV for each of the 9.5 million households included in the retrofit scenario.”
At the same time, “rapidly deploying EVs can help address the negative health impacts of air pollution on Canadians. And the displaced gasoline consumption would cut GHG emissions by another 48 million tonnes of CO2e annually, over and above the 58 million tonnes of direct emission reductions from the building retrofits. Taken together, the investments in residential and commercial building retrofits and electrification described here would reduce annual fuel and electricity costs by $20 billion.”
But just as the early auto industry lacked the assembly line capability that cut the cost of a Model T Ford from $25,000 in 1910 (in today’s dollars) to $5,000 a decade later, “the housing renovation industry we have in place today could not deliver the retrofits we need for the low-carbon transition,” Torrie and Bak wrote. “It’s time to move the building renovation industry to its Model-T moment. A near-term, $20-billion investment in residential building retrofits and a $6-billion investment in public and commercial building retrofits would set the wheels in motion to do that.”
While the CaGBC report focuses primarily on new buildings and the three categories of building professionals, Chief Commercial Officer Brent Gilmour called the existing building stock an “important pillar” of the sector’s contribution to climate action. “Every building built today that is not designed to achieve near-zero carbon emissions is contributing to a continued increase in carbon emissions,” he told The Energy Mix in an email. “With Canada’s 2030 climate targets on the horizon, it’s critical that the building sector work force focus on developing the skills and knowledge necessary to deliver on zero-carbon buildings at scale for new and existing buildings.”
Gilmour cited a past CaGBC report that looked at low-carbon skill gaps among building trades in Ontario, adding that differences in apprenticeship programs among provinces will dictate a flexible approach to skill development.
“As the voice of the green building industry, we’ve advocated for government investment in education and training to enable the building sectors’ transition to low-carbon construction,” he said. “As we look ahead to government spending as part of the COVID-19 recovery, we hope to see significant spending to help prepare the work force for increased demand for zero-carbon buildings and deep energy retrofits.”
Asked whether CaGBC’s work matches up with Torrie’s and Bak’s industrialized approach to mass, deep retrofits, Gilmour said the association has been working to counter market barriers to energy retrofits at scale, calling for co-financing through the Canada Infrastructure Bank to boost investor confidence and creation of a “first loss loan reserve” to protect qualified lenders in the event of default.
“We’ve also advocated for zero carbon to become the requirement for all federally-funded, -owned, or leased building projects to set the standard for the rest of the country,” Gilmour wrote. “The government should leverage its procurement power by requiring all federally-owned or federally-funded provincial and municipal building projects to accelerate capital improvement plans that prioritize emission reductions.”