The federal government is receiving a rocky response after unveiling its seven-year, C$2.6-billion plan to help Canadians cover the cost of home energy retrofits.
The plan comes nowhere close to the mass, deep retrofits some analysts and modellers have been recommending, and that Ottawa has begun to embrace, as a cornerstone of a rapid decarbonization strategy.
But the Canada Greener Homes Grant will still offer homeowners up to $5,000 to help them upgrade their heating systems, install solar panels, and replace windows and doors, CBC reports. They’ll also get up to $600 to help cover the cost of before-and-after home energy audits.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the funding will be enough to reach 700,000 households. Statistica says the country had 10.34 million families last year.
“As a country, every effort counts to keep our air clean and our environment healthy,” Trudeau said Thursday. “We know that these retrofits can sometimes be out of reach, so our government is now making them more affordable for Canadians.”
But the Pembina Institute warned the grant program falls short of the “all hands on deck effort” that will be needed to control the 17% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions that come from homes and other buildings.
“It is good to see the federal government incentivizing retrofits, but the scale of funding allocated here does not match the urgency of the moment,” said Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, Pembina’s director of buildings and urban solutions. “We estimate the public investments needed to meet these objectives at about $10 to $15 billion per year, every year between now and 2040, or until appropriate regulatory drivers are in place. This is an order of magnitude higher than the investments made to date, both in spending envelope and in longevity of programs.”
Keeping Canada’s climate promises under the 2015 Paris Agreement will mean renovating most of the country’s buildings by 2050, Frappé-Sénéclauze added. “To eliminate carbon pollution from our homes, we need to replace gas and oil equipment with highly efficient heat pumps, and connect them to clean electricity. To improve the health and comfort of residents and keep the bills low, we also need to include energy efficiency upgrades: plugging air drafts, changing windows, adding insulation, increasing ventilation and air filtration,” an approach that “can also make our homes more resilient to extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, forest fire smoke, and power outages.”
But despite the shortcomings in the plan, Globe and Mail climate columnist Adam Radwanski says the Trudeau Liberals may still be meeting their own political objectives with “what is likely to be one of their more crowd-pleasing climate-related programs”.
Citing an interview with Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan, Radwanski says Ottawa expects the program to save up to 1.5 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2027—less than 1% of the reductions the country will need to meet its new 2030 target.
“But the Liberals clearly see upside beyond just the direct emissions reductions,” he writes. “Mr. O’Regan cited several potential benefits that explain why they’re drawn to the retrofit grants program—a smaller version of which existed under Stephen Harper’s government a decade ago—as a way to achieve both environmental and economic benefits while reducing Canadians’ cost of living.”
Lower energy bills are “the impact that Mr. O’Regan seemed most eager to talk about,” he added.
With program critics like the University of Ottawa’s Nic Rivers warning that the grant will subsidize investments that most people would have made anyway, Radwanski says the government could have considered limiting the funding to households that need it most, or paying for deeper, more expensive retrofits in a smaller number of homes.
“The most negative reading of the Liberals’ decision to instead offer the grants more widely and thinly involves electoral considerations,” he writes. “Casting the program more narrowly would mean fewer voters would be able to take advantage of it, or at least know they will have the opportunity to do so if Mr. Trudeau wins another term.”
But “a more charitable interpretation, perhaps not mutually exclusive to that one, is that the government sees merit in proving to as many Canadians as possible that helping the environment can also help their own bottom line,” Radwanski adds. “With the climate fight often framed as one involving sacrifice—including by opponents of carbon pricing that will drive up heating costs for those still reliant on fossil fuels—the Liberals have pounced on an opportunity to actively reward people for helping reduce emissions. That could conceivably make it easier to get buy-in for other sustainability measures, as well.”