Canada has all the technological tools it needs to decarbonize its building sector, but daunting challenges remain at the system level, said a panel of experts at a recent climate conference held in Ottawa.
Building emissions in Canada have been rising since 2005, and continue to do so, putting the country at risk of missing its 2030 emissions reduction target, noted panelists at the recent Building Momentum Toward Net Zero climate conference, co-hosted by the Canadian Climate Institute and the Net-Zero Advisory Body. Reducing and decarbonizing energy use in buildings is largely about decarbonizing heat, for which the technology exists: cold-weather heat pumps, district energy systems, and hybrid heating. But many aspects need to come together to help Canada make a nation-wide switch away from fossil-fuelled heating.
Policies announced to date, like the Canada Green Buildings Strategy, may not be sufficient to put Canada back on track to meeting its climate goals, the panelists said. One solution would be to accelerate progress by amplifying existing efficiency programs, but without duplicating them.
“What we don’t need is more programs entering the market and operating distinctly from each other,” said Raegan Bond, partner and principal at Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors. With utility-regulated energy efficiency programs in place for decades across Canada, with “incredible infrastructure,” program design, and delivery expertise already in place, “we need to amplify that, not duplicate it.”
Some programs may need to transform from a “purely energy focus to a climate focus,” Bond added, but that integration will need attention “so it’s not just about putting more money in the system.” And important regulatory and “in-the-weeds” evaluation will need to be adjusted to make things work.
Streamlining is needed as grants and subsidy programs “have been fairly disconnected from each other,” said James Jenkins, executive director of Indigenous Clean Energy. “Coordinating funding may also be a challenge,” he added since a First Nation or a smaller municipality may lack the capacity to get programs up and running.
Knowing the amount of “figuring out” of various elements that Canada needs at a systemic level, it is hard to be optimistic about meeting the country’s 2030 targets—though 2050 seems more feasible, said Monica Gattinger, director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. It will take a few years to get things right, she said, “but as soon as that foundation is put in place, we will see a much more rapid transformation.”
Limited Awareness, Resistance to Adoption
Asked about the biggest barrier to electrifying building heat, Gattinger flagged challenges “at the customer level.” She urged governments to educate the public about new technologies like heat pumps—for greater familiarity and “new ways of thinking about energy services.” Gattinger praised the recently-announced heat pump incentive in Atlantic Canada as a positive step, adding that in the end, “it all comes down to implementation.”
Gattinger had earlier pointed out a “big hairy question” of pacing the energy transition to match rising demand for electricity. “If we don’t get it right, we could really struggle to deliver reliable, affordable electricity, which is going to be absolutely crucial for both customer and investor confidence in emissions reductions,” she said.
“Some folks will say natural gas doesn’t have a role, so let’s just ban it and get it out of buildings entirely,” Gattinger added. “But I think in light of that pacing challenge, that may be easier said than done.”
Bond said work force availability and education is another crucial factor that could become a barrier. Since most homeowners rely on the advice of contractors, engaging and educating them will be key to the transition.
Jenkins identified resistance to being early adopters, particularly in Indigenous communities, as another major obstacle.
Beyond equipping Canadians with electrified heating and cooling systems, building efficiency should be at the foundation of the effort to address energy poverty, Bond said. “My nightmare scenario is that we have a bunch of lower-income Canadians in really draughty, inefficient homes that have a heat pump that is just heating the outside,” she said. “Their bills don’t go down, and they’re no more comfortable.”
Bond said policy-makers and practitioners must understand that the energy and climate transition isn’t just about clean electricity. It’s also about “comfort, reduced electricity bills, and lots of other side benefits.” She added that “it’s not just about electricity, affordability, or even energy affordability, but affordability writ large,” encompassing all kinds of issues, including food insecurity, on which renters must not be left behind.
“That’s a really important market that we cannot forget.”
Place-Based Energy Decisions
Another major takeaway from the discussion was the imperative to understand and respond to community priorities. Pointing out that 20% of homes in Indigenous communities are in dire need of repair, rising to at least 50% in remote communities, compared to the national average of 6%, Jenkins said energy efficiency is the top building challenge for many First Nations—not just to cut emissions, but for public health and quality of life.
Jenkins highlighted the “large adjustment” in mindset now under way as remote communities begin to grapple with options like microgrids, or using forest residue to heat buildings and water.
Taking a different angle on the idea of community-based energy decision-making, Gattinger reiterated her concerns about electricity demand. Citing “billions of dollars of in-the-ground gas infrastructure and millions of kilometres of gas distribution infrastructure,” she maintained that in some circumstances, likely in the short term, “the role of the natural gas delivery system is actually going to be very important and strategic.”