Q&A: Toronto’s Net Zero Program Manager on Why Communication is Key

The City of Toronto is targeting net-zero community emissions by 2040—a decade sooner than most major North American cities with climate action plans.

“It is a long-term vision,” said Sophie Plottel, who leads the team responsible for the development of Toronto’s TransformTO Net Zero Strategy, which aims to unite City divisions and the community at large around a cohesive, vision for accelerated climate action in Toronto, she explained.

The Net Zero Strategy, for which SSG modelled the decarbonization pathway, was  adopted by Toronto City Council in December 2021. Earlier this month, the American Planning Association recognized the City and SSG’s work on the strategy with an Award for Excellence in Sustainability in the Environment, Climate, & Energy category.

We caught up with Plottel to discuss how the City plans to reverse the general trend of rising emissions and what other communities can learn from Toronto’s experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

The public square outside of Toronto’s City Hall. Photo by Rachael Annabelle on Unsplash.

 

SSG: It’s been just over four months since Toronto passed the Net-Zero Strategy. How are things going? 

SP: We’ve had lots of community interest. We’ve leveraged the passing of the report to launch new programs. Just last month, the City announced a Deep Retrofit Challenge to accelerate emissions reductions from buildings and identify pathways for other buildings to replicate.  The launch of the strategy was an opportunity to advance and sharpen our focus on immediate actions to get us on the emissions trajectory needed to hit our 2030 goals and reach net zero by 2040. Some City Agencies, such as the Toronto Transportation Commission (TTC) and Toronto Hydro, are accelerating climate action and increasing their ambitions based on our strategy.

SSG: The Net-Zero Strategy is exciting, but emissions in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are rising. How does the strategy tackle this challenge? 

SP: The Strategy contains 2030 interim targets which were developed to stimulate and measure progress on the way towards net zero. These include designing 100% of new buildings to be near zero emissions, cutting GHG emissions from existing buildings in half, and sourcing 50% of community-wide energy from renewable sources. The Strategy contains City commitments to demonstrate carbon accountability via a carbon budget, accelerate a rapid reduction in natural gas use via new building standards, establish performance targets for existing buildings, and increase access to low-carbon transportation options.

The City will play a big role in communicating the challenge and uniting people around a single goal. Everyone, including city residents and businesses, needs to know what they can do and how they can contribute.

The City of Toronto is also focused on demonstrating leadership—showing what’s possible for City-owned buildings, vehicles and waste. Once people understand what they can do and what’s possible, with appropriate information and support, then we can get there.

 

Net-zero pathways modelled for the City of Toronto, relative to a Do Nothing Scenario and a Business as Planning Scenario, which projects emissions based on policies already in place. Toronto selected the Net Zero by 2040 pathway (dark blue) for its TransformTO Net Zero Strategy. Image from the TransformTO Net Zero Strategy.

 

SSG: Can you tell me more about how decision making is changing at the City? 

SP: Climate is an increasingly important factor in decision making at the City. For instance, we’re working on a carbon budget to track climate actions against annual emissions limits and drive accountability. We’re also developing a ‘climate lens’ and process that staff will follow to evaluate and consider the climate implications of all major City of Toronto decisions.

And we’re putting in place structures for accountability and management of climate action, and to make climate action a visible issue in our work across all City divisions and agencies.

A key piece is an accountability and management framework that will go to Council soon. The framework will see the City create three advisory bodies, including an external Climate Advisory Group to advise on strategy implementation, to draw on the knowledge of staff, stakeholders and residents. We will also establish a Senior Leadership Table comprised of senior city staff to discuss the challenges and opportunities at the highest level, as well as a Joint Implementation Committee made up of City management and unionized staff to understand how City facilities and operations can work to achieve our goals.

SSG: How do you hope Toronto will be transformed by this strategy? 

SP: Reducing emissions to net zero will require significant changes in how we live, build, commute, manage waste, and more. I hope people understand that taking climate action can improve their lives and create a better future for our city. If we live our lives in a way that’s kind to the planet, it also means that we’re being kind to ourselves and to one another and it can permeate other areas of our lives. So by walking an extra three or four minutes, or taking your bike instead of driving, you might have a better day. People are going to have to retrofit their homes to reduce emissions, but that’s also going to make their homes more comfortable.

We have learned and continue to learn from the First Nations, Inuit, Métis, and urban Indigenous communities in Toronto. A learning I’ve taken from them is to treat others the way that you would like to be treated—and that includes plants, animals, the earth, the air, water. We’re considering that as we implement the strategy.

 

A view of downtown Toronto from Riverdale Park. Photo by James Thomas on Unsplash.

 

SSG: What insights do you have for other cities? 

SP: If I were speaking to a colleague from another city, I’d tell them communication is the biggest piece. You have to understand the priorities of your senior leadership team and speak that language. You have to understand the priorities in other City divisions and speak their language as well. You have to include and understand the priorities of residents and stakeholders, and speak their language as well.

People have different priorities, so taking a step back and tying climate action to the City of Toronto’s strategic priorities was important. These include priorities to maintain and create affordable housing, keep Toronto moving, invest in people and neighbourhoods, and tackle climate change and build resilience.

We made sure we were speaking to staff across the City about their priorities as well. So, if we were talking to someone in Transportation and they had goals to build out cycling routes, we’d learn about their constraints and challenges and support them through the climate strategy by working with them to align their actions with our action plan.

Early involvement was also important. We got other divisions involved when SSG was modelling decarbonization pathways so staff could provide input on and understand what actions we were including in the climate modelling, the challenges that lay ahead, and how they could contribute. Now we have colleagues across the City that are environmental champions. It helped that senior management is focused on achieving net zero and communicated this as a priority.

It’s also important to be clear about what you’ve heard from the community and to reflect that in your climate strategy. Toronto has an active climate action community. We needed to demonstrate that the work that we were doing was in response to community need and desires. And then, finally, express that back out to the community—that we were putting forward a plan that reflected their input.

A public streetcar in downtown Toronto. Photo by Marcin Skalij on Unsplash.

 

SSG: What are you looking forward to about climate action in Toronto?

SP: Some new and important programs are being developed, especially related to reducing emissions from transportation and buildings. Buildings are the largest source of Toronto’s emissions, so these programs will be critical.

The latest Toronto Green Standard came into force this month. New buildings will have to adhere to even stronger environmental performance. In the future, the City will be looking to incorporate the embodied carbon impacts of new construction into the standard, as well.

To reduce emissions from existing buildings, we have the City’s Net Zero Existing Building Strategy. Homeowners and building owners can take advantage of many existing and new programs, including low-interest loans, to help get our buildings to net zero as soon as possible.

And the City’s Electric Vehicle Strategy is in place to support the transition to electric vehicles, while the TTC is set to expand transit service and the further electrification of its vehicles. Decarbonizing the transportation sector is important, as vehicles are the second largest source of emissions in Toronto today. And, we have a big focus on reducing waste as well and moving towards a circular economy.

I’m looking forward to projects getting underway and showing people what’s possible. We’re on the cusp of transformative change.

 

The TransformTO Net-Zero Strategy can be found here. To get in touch with us about how we can help your municipality reach net zero while contributing to the economy, contact us here.

SSG, Toronto, and Edmonton Win APA Awards For Climate Action Work

On May 2, SSG’s cutting-edge climate planning work was recognized with two awards from the American Planning Association Sustainable Communities Division!

With the City of Toronto, we won the Environment, Climate, & Energy Award for the TransformTO Net-Zero Strategy, attaining a near-perfect score from the jurors. The strategy sets a target of net-zero community emissions by 2040—a decade sooner than most major North American Cities with climate action plans.

Our team modelled emissions reduction pathways to explore how the city could reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and 2050. As our Principal Julia Meyer-Macleod explains on our blog, pursuing net-zero emission by 2040 is feasible, costs less, and results in fewer overall emissions than pursuing net-zero by 2050.

With the City of Edmonton, we won the Policy, Law, or Tool Award for Edmonton’s carbon budget. Jurors were impressed by its status as the first carbon budget in North America, the comprehensive set of strategies backing the budget, and the focus on accountability.

As our Principal Yuill Herbert writes in the National Observer, we believe that every city needs a carbon budget to stay on track with their climate goals. Carbon budgets ensure accountability for municipal decisions by setting a cap on how much a community can emit annually and for all time.

In Edmonton, the carbon budgeting process is being integrated into the financial budgeting process for the 2023-2026 budget cycle. That means that every investment the City makes will be evaluated in terms of emissions as well as finances.

We’re humbled by these awards and hope more communities will be inspired to undertake similar climate action work.

Toronto Aims for Net Zero by 2040

In 2019, the City of Toronto declared a climate emergency and adopted a net-zero emissions by 2050—or sooner—target. Yesterday, the City held true to its word, passing its Net Zero Strategy. The Strategy targets net-zero community emissions by 2040—a decade sooner than most major North American cities with climate action plans.

Sustainability Solutions Group and our partners at whatIf? Technologies helped Toronto develop its strategy. We modelled emissions reduction action pathways to explore how the city could reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and 2050. We found that not only is pursuing net-zero by 2040 technically feasible, it results in fewer emissions overall, provides health and well-being benefits to residents sooner, and actually costs less than pursuing net zero by 2050. So, while many municipalities have typically considered the pursuit of less ambitious climate targets to be a more cautious approach, Toronto’s pursuit of net zero by 2040 could mark the beginning of an era where the opposite will be the case.

It comes as no surprise that the effort required to reach net zero by 2040 is immense. Over the next 20 years, the community needs to retrofit nearly 300,000 homes and apartment units, and over 2,000 commercial buildings. Every viable rooftop needs to be fitted with solar panels, all food and organic waste must be composted, and all vehicles need to be electric. For context, over 1.1 million gasoline-powered cars are currently on Toronto’s roads.

Despite the great level of effort required to get to net zero by 2040, modelling shows that Toronto does not need to lean on any untested solutions to complete the actions of the strategy. Namely, electric vehicles, high-performing building materials, solar panels, and battery storage systems are all on the market and in operation today. While new technologies are not required to meet the target, the mass deployment of green technologies is likely to spur innovations and improvements that could enable the city to achieve carbon neutrality even sooner.

All in all, reaching the net-zero target by 2040 requires $146 billion in investments from the City, other levels of government, businesses, residents, and financial institutions over the coming decades. At first glance, these numbers may make the task seem insurmountable, but the investments required amount to just 5% of the city’s GDP for a decade. Many of these investments result in reduced energy bills, vehicle bills, and avoided carbon tax costs, amounting to $114 billion in savings and avoided costs. The sooner the City and the community acts, the more money the local government and Torontonians will save in the long run.

Financial modelling shows that pursuing net zero by 2040 will cost the community $135 million less than pursuing this target by 2050 because savings will start sooner. The net-zero actions also produce a broad range of societal benefits which result in direct and indirect financial paybacks beyond those discussed above. For example, our analysis showed that improved air quality from electrifying vehicles could result in health benefits valued at nearly $1 billion per year. Increased walking and cycling will reduce heart disease, and transit improvements will result in increased access to jobs and services without the need for vehicle ownership. Investments in net-zero actions will result in the creation of approximately 50,000 new jobs. In other words, reducing emissions will also advance multiple municipal and community objectives.

Electrification of building energy systems and vehicles is often cited as a big challenge—will the grid be able to accommodate the increased demand? While adaptations to the grid will be needed (for example, through improved controls and energy storage options), at a high level the net-zero pathway mitigates grid overload by increasing efficiencies first to minimize the increase in electricity demand. This is done, for example, through building retrofits, increasing the performance of new buildings, and encouraging the use of transit over personal vehicles.

Another issue with electrification is the emissions associated with the provincial grid, which are projected to increase over the coming decades. For Toronto to achieve net zero, the grid will either need to decarbonize, or the city will need to invest in costly carbon offsets or renewable energy certificates, which will deliver far fewer co-benefits.

Our modelling shows that while the challenges and effort required for the city to reach net-zero emissions are significant, it is possible and beneficial to do so. Toronto stands to gain in many areas—financial and otherwise—from pursuing its target of net zero by 2040. Toronto’s Net Zero Strategy puts the city in a position of opportunity, setting an example for the country and other cities to follow.

Julia Meyer-MacLeod is a Principal at Sustainability Solutions Group and co-author of Toronto’s Net Zero Strategy.

Halton Hills Adopts Most Ambitious Climate Action Strategy in Canada

On November 15, 2021, the Halton Hills Town Council did something no Canadian community has done before: it unanimously approved a strategy for the community to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.

Located on the northwestern edge of the Greater Toronto Area with a population of about 60,000 people, Halton Hills is a fast-growing town with big climate ambition. In 2019, Halton Hills Town Council challenged themselves to a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, joining the ranks of global climate leaders like Glasgow, Scotland; Bristol, England; and Ithaca, NY. In 2020, they hired SSG to help them develop an evidence-based and community-informed pathway to get there.

The Town’s Low-Carbon Transition Strategy is the result of over a year of technical analysis and engagement with a Multi-Stakeholder Governance Committee and the public. The committee—with membership from the Town corporation, utilities, institutions, businesses, industry, environmental nonprofits, and the community—played a critical role in strategy development. It dedicated over a dozen hours to learning about the planning process and provided detailed input on what measures would work for the community.

Like many other community decarbonization plans, this one features:

  1. Deep energy retrofits and electrification of homes and businesses;
  2. Net-zero emissions new buildings;
  3. Increased walking and cycling trips, and electric transit;
  4. Switching from combustion engine to electric vehicles;
  5. Diversion of organic waste away from landfill; and
  6. Increased renewable energy generation.

The plan’s timeline is unique: it shrinks into eight years what other communities are planning to accomplish over 28.

A major challenge in achieving the 2030 net-zero goal is vehicle emissions. Even with ambitious goals to shift vehicle trips to be made by active transportation and transit trips instead, some gas and diesel vehicles will still be on the road in 2030. One potential strategy to reach the net-zero goal despite remaining vehicle emissions is to purchase carbon offsets. The Town continues to explore options like this and is committed to moving forward in other areas they can effectively decarbonize.

To get in touch with us about how we can help your municipality reach net zero, contact us here.

Powerful Free Tool Helps Accelerate Climate Action

October 19, 2021 [Press Release] — As local-government leaders from across Canada gather online today for the annual FCM Sustainable Communities Conference, a national climate planning co-operative is offering them the information they need to kickstart climate action without paying consultants tens of thousands of dollars and waiting for many months.

As of today, every one of Canada’s 4,000+ cities, towns, and villages can access the Municipal Energy and Emissions Database (MEED) for a free community carbon-pollution profile that shows them where their greenhouse gas emissions originate and what they amount to. Once equipped with this critical info, a local government can apply for funding, or get straight to rolling out programs to regulate and/or incentivize climate solutions—such as building public EV charging stations or creating programs for building energy retrofits.

MEED is available at https://meed.info.

“Canada’s communities are on the front lines of the climate emergency, and while many of them are now responding with effective policy, many more don’t know where to start,” said Yuill Herbert, Co-founder and Principal of Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), which developed MEED in partnership with whatIf? Technologies. “MEED is their ticket to ride. It shows them how much climate pollution their community is producing, so they can move straight to the critical work of reducing it.”

Though the lead sources of climate pollution are well known, local governments can’t design effective policy without knowing how much of it comes from where. To get those details, a municipality would typically hire a consultant to produce a custom comprehensive GHG inventory, which could cost up to $40,000 and take many months to complete.

MEED helps them cut to the chase, explains Marcus Williams, Senior Model Analyst and Principal of WhatIf? Technologies.

“Local governments have finite amounts of time, money, and expertise, and constituents and stakeholders are calling for action,” said Williams. “MEED gives them a decent snapshot of their climate pollution—it’s not meticulous but it is the crucial first step.”

Backgrounder: Questions and Answers About MEED

What is MEED?

MEED is an open-access database that provides a free climate-pollution profile for every community in Canada. Each profile includes a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventory, a list of where the pollution is coming from, and what it adds up to.

Why is it a big deal?

MEED is revolutionary. For the first time, with a couple of keystrokes, any one of Canada’s local governments can download an accurate summary of their community’s total climate pollution and a detailed breakdown of where it is coming from.

In this respect, it puts all Canadian communities—from the biggest cities to the smallest villages—on a level playing field. A climate pollution profile would otherwise cost a local government as much as $40,000 and could take up to a year to complete. This is a barrier for some communities and a bottleneck for others. MEED gives every government what it needs to get its climate response underway.

How would a community use it?

Local governments need a greenhouse gas emissions inventory as a first step to apply for funding for incentive programs, or launch them. Three things make a MEED inventory different:

  • It’s Free: MEED’s version is free, and a local government can use it to report to and/or apply for funding from, for example, the Global Covenant of Mayors, CDP, and/or the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Partners for Climate Protection program.
  • It’s Credible: It uses a globally recognized standard—the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC).
  • It’s Transparent: A local government can compare its emissions with those of a similar sized community elsewhere, and do so knowing it is comparing apples to apples.

How Does it Work?

MEED pulls publicly accessible data on population, households, dwelling units, employment, weather, and known large emitters. It then compiles the data and compares it with published federal energy and emissions reports. When MEED identifies a difference between the two, it refines its calculations until the results match.

What’s the catch?

With respect to limitations, the tool currently tabulates climate pollution by sector or fuel source, and includes transportation, buildings, and stationary energy sources. (Industry and agriculture, forestry, and land use emissions are coming soon.) The tool can’t access a community’s actual measured energy consumption, so it uses estimates. In most cases, the estimates are reasonable and “ballpark good enough” to start climate action.

How One City De-Polarized Climate Action

Since Mayor Don Iveson’s election in 2013, Edmonton has developed one of the most ambitious climate action plans in Canada. The City plans to double its population while achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and, to our knowledge, is the first municipality in North America to integrate a carbon budget into its official plan, setting a cap on how much the community can emit, ever.

Edmonton has also taken steps to galvanize global climate action. In 2018, Iveson had a summit with mayors from around the world that led to the Edmonton Declaration, a call-to-action for mayors to take urgent action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Thousands of cities and authorities, including Indigenous groups, signed on.

“It’s recognition that we’re part of an international movement of local governments who’ve been leading on this for decades,” Iveson said.

Earlier this year, SSG had a chance to sit down with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and talk about his climate action legacy (Iveson steps down after the municipal election on October 18). We spoke to him about what motivates him to take action, why Edmonton developed a carbon budget, and how the City built public support for climate action.

“Public engagement is the most important dimension of this,” he told us, noting that the City invited young people to speak at meetings on climate change and help decrease divisions. Their presence “makes it hard for decision makers to play the division of wedge politics in front of kids who will suffer for that,” Iveson explained.

The City also created a citizens’ advisory committee of locals with relevant expertise who gave advice to the City and Council on their climate action plan, in addition to bringing together a Citizens’ Panel made up of a diverse and representative group of Edmontonians. The panel deliberated on how the City should respond to energy and climate challenges, and provided recommendations to the City.

Most of those skeptical of the science came around to supporting climate action, noting the economic and health benefits of climate action, such as stable electricity prices and cleaner air, Iveson explained. “We need to be anti-polarizers.”

Watch the full interview above.

What It Means to Plan for Net-Zero 

With the heat dome hitting the Pacific Northwest this summer, extreme floods in Europe and Asia, and record temperatures in Siberia, the climate crisis is top of mind for many in North America and beyond.

Critically, we already have solutions to limit global warming. The key is to implement them rapidly and on a huge scale.

This is the point underscored by the Roadmap to Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region, a marquee project we worked on for the Government of Canada The recently released report, which we prepared with Rocky Mountain Institute and whatIf? Technologies, shows the Canadian government can nearly eliminate emissions from its operations, including over 2,200 buildings spanning 60 million square feet (5.6 million square metres) of floor area, as well as corporate fleets, district energy systems, and employee commuting. Canada is implementing many of the findings of the Roadmap through the Greening Government Strategy and PSPC’s Sustainable Development Strategy.

Our analysis shows that the Canadian government has a viable pathway to achieve net-zero emissions, while creating 46,000 person-years of direct employment and 22,000 person years of indirect employment—an average of 1,500 direct and 700 indirect person-years annually. Not to mention improvements in air quality, more comfortable buildings, and increased employee well-being.

What’s more, Canada can do it all with existing technologies while saving money. Transitioning away from fossil fuels via the actions outlined in the pathway, such as electrification of Canada’s fleet, retrofitting old buildings, implementing greener building standards, and more, has the potential to save the Canadian government $900 million by 2050 relative to a status quo future.

We want to ensure that businesses and governments around the world, especially large ones with thousands of buildings, employees, and vehicles, can learn from Canada’s approach. To help get started, we’ve pulled out key insights from the project in a series of four blogs.

1) We need standard, scalable retrofit approaches so we can quickly decarbonize thousands of buildings. 

Old, leaky buildings are a climate problem. For organizations with large building portfolios, this challenge is paramount to reducing emissions. And it’s a critical one for solving the climate crisis. According to the UN Environment Programme, buildings account for 36 percent of total global carbon emissions and 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

One-off retrofits, which are the norm in the building retrofit market, do not capture economies of scale. As a part of our Roadmap development we explored how industrialization and mass customization can take energy efficiency retrofits to scale. The first blog in our series explores the implications of this proposal and the savings it could create.

2) Combining electrification with deep retrofits can cut emissions without crashing the grid.  

In the face of the climate crisis, organizations are looking to electrification and renewable energy as a way to get buildings, energy systems, and vehicles off of fossil fuels. But fears abound that plugging too many things into the grid could overwhelm the system and lead to blackouts. Our analysis and modelling for the Roadmap  suggests that, by combining electrification with deep energy efficiency retrofits, we can stave off an increase in building-level electricity demand and demand peaks on the electric grid. In our second blog, we explain how.

3) Aging infrastructure is a huge, hidden opportunity for climate action.

Our work found that upgrading aging infrastructure is a cost-effective way to take climate action. More than half of the total federal building area in the Canadian capital will be classified as being in poor or critical condition within the next decade. With smart investments in energy efficiency retrofits, renewable energy, and district energy systems, the federal government can ensure that upgrades to these buildings significantly reduce emissions. The third blog in our series breaks down this historic opportunity for climate action and renewal.

4) We can reduce emissions by modernizing office spaces and changing how people get to work. 

Getting to net-zero requires changes in how federal employees work and move. The Roadmap recommends the federal government accommodate teleworking from home and co-working, which can offer employees more flexibility while also reducing transportation emissions. Changes to working life during the pandemic have already shown us that this is possible. In the final blog, we explore the implications of employee commute changes, remote work, and space modernization for climate emissions.

For more insights on how to build a carbon-free future, sign up for the monthly SSG Newswire and updates from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Team.

How We Can Reduce Emissions by Changing How We Work 

Getting to net-zero requires changes in how we work and move. In organizations where the bulk of commuting takes place by car, transportation emissions can account for a significant portion of GHG emissions. This point was underscored by the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns in early  2020: by April 2020, daily emissions had dropped 17%, partly due to a decline in car use as many stopped travelling to and from work.

In the case of the Canadian government’s operations in the national capital, commuting by its 150,000 employees is the second largest contributor to operations emissions, totalling 138 kt CO2e in 2016. Most of these emissions result from employees driving to work.

 

Baseline emissions for the Government of Canada’s operations in the NCR, by sector and fuel. (Designer: Naomi Devine/SSG)

 

In a study for the Government of Canada, SSG, Rocky Mountain Institute, and whatIf? Technologies explored solutions to reduce commuting emissions in the National Capital Region (NCR) to net-zero by 2050. The project, Roadmap to Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region, considered how the government could decrease commutes and make commuting less-fossil fuel intensive with public transit, cycling and walking infrastructure, and zero-emissions vehicles.

The impact could be significant. By 2050, transforming how government offices manage space and making it easy for employees to work from home could reduce emissions by 45 percent.

We found a policy enabling employees to work from home two days per week can make a significant dent in commuting emissions at little additional cost. Implementing an effective teleworking policy requires robust IT communications infrastructure to connect employees remotely. But the Government of Canada, like many organizations, already has an initiative underway to provide this infrastructure.

 

The influence of teleworking on commuting emissions tied to the Government of Canada’s operations in the National Capital Region. (Designer: Naomi Devine/SSG)

 

When combined with space modernization to enable employees to share desks or access co-working spaces, teleworking can reduce the floor area required by the workforce and, therefore, building emissions. At the same time, by offering employees access to co-working spaces in a variety of locations, the government can help reduce long-distance travel by enabling employees to work closer to where they live.

 

Possible future space needs for the Government of Canada’s operations in the NCR after modernization and teleworking, including a 12% buffer for the minimum required floor space. (Designer: Naomi Devine/SSG)

 

The number of employees who drive to work is influenced by the location of offices. For example, in comparison to a single-use campus in Kanata, an Ottawa suburb, a federal building in downtown Ottawa has higher rates of transit, walking, and cycling commuting.

The Roadmap recommends the government locate new developments in areas with good transit, walking, and cycling access or design multi-use, transit-based developments where employees and residents live, work, eat, and access services and recreation within their immediate neighborhood.

Of course, even with all these changes, some employees would have to drive. Parking incentives, such as eliminating all free-parking except for zero-emissions vehicles, as well as promoting carpooling could help drive those emissions down.

Changes to working life during the pandemic have demonstrated that the transformations recommended in the Roadmap are viable. As organizations look to bring employees back to the office or redevelop or create new office space, transforming the way employees use space and offering them the flexibility to work from home can push down workplace emissions.

For more insights on how to build a carbon-free future, sign up for the monthly SSG Newswire and updates from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Team.

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Yuill Herbert is a co-founder and principal of the Sustainability Solutions Group, a climate planning consultancy that has designed climate action plans and community energy and emissions plans for more than 60 municipalities, encompassing over 30% of the Canadian population. He led the development of the Roadmap for Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region. 

Erik Frenette has worked on energy models since 2011, with a focus on providing solutions to Canadian specific energy and climate change issues. He is a model analyst at whatIf? Technologies.

 

Aging Buildings and the Climate Emergency: Opportunity Knocks!

Great opportunities arise when several trends converge in a way that creates possibilities that would otherwise not exist. One such convergence of trends is the aging stock of commercial and institutional buildings in need of capital reinvestment, the growing urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the remarkable advancement in recent years of the design approaches and technologies available for building energy efficiency and electrification.

Working at the intersection of these three trends and focusing on the inventory of Canadian government buildings in Canada’s capital, SSG, whatIf? Technologies, and the Rocky Mountain Institute found that strategic investments in aging buildings can significantly reduce their carbon footprint while significantly cutting energy costs and creating thousands of jobs.

The majority of the 2,200 Canadian government buildings in the Ottawa area are over four decades old. Wrapping strategic energy efficiency retrofits, renewable energy, and district energy systems into planned upgrades offer a historic opportunity for climate action and renewal.

Trend #1: The aging stock of federal buildings

The age profile of federal buildings in the Ottawa area typifies much of the commercial and institutional building stock throughout North America. Fully 70% of the portfolio is over 40 years old; more floor space was added in the 1970s than in all the decades since.

These buildings are due for renewal; indeed, budget pressures have resulted in inadequate maintenance investments over the years, and over 40% of the federal building inventory is in poor or critical condition. Another 22% is in fair condition. Even for those buildings kept in reasonable condition, advancements in building science and technology have rendered critical systems obsolete. Their interior designs and layouts are misaligned with the needs of a modern office working environment and the much greater role of advanced information technologies in the delivery of government services in the 21st century.

The aging inventory of federal buildings. 

Trend #2:  Government commitments to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions

The needed renewal of the buildings coincides with a commitment by the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its own operations by 80%. If the Canadian government adopts the carbon budget under consideration, it would have  an even more challenging target: zero emissions by the mid 2030s.

Emissions from federal operations in the National Capital Region. 

In the National Capital Region (NCR), 98% of emissions from the government’s operations come from building energy use—mostly natural gas for heating—so the emission reduction commitment translates directly into a target to virtually eliminate natural gas consumption. To meet the emission reduction commitment, the impending recapitalization of federal real estate in the NCR must transform the buildings into high efficiency, high performance spaces with zero or very low emissions, including the emissions associated with their electricity use.

Trend #3: Advancing building science and technology.

The science, engineering, and related technologies that are being applied in buildings today would be hardly recognizable to a visitor from the 1970s.  Most of the federal building stock in the NCR predates the invention of the personal computer, never mind the advanced digital sensor and control technologies that are now routinely used to replace overdesign and inefficiencies with precision, efficiency, and superior comfort and building performance. Ironically, it may be that the backlog of deferred maintenance of the federal building stock actually represents an advantage: the government can leapfrog intermediate generations of technology with retrofits to create the low-carbon buildings of the future.

LED lighting systems, high performance windows, air-to-air cold climate heat pumps, electronically commutated high efficiency fan and pump motors, advanced energy flywheels and other heat recovery technologies—these are just some examples of the tsunami of technological innovation that has swept through the building sector in recent years. When combined with deep cost reductions in sensors and digitized control technologies, the recapitalization of old buildings can create healthier, more productive space that no longer relies on antiquated fossil fuel combustion technologies.

Electrification is the key to efficiency, including by switching current electric resistance heating to heat pump technology. Modern, electric-powered technologies are dramatically more efficient than their predecessors or their combustion-based alternatives. In a deep building retrofit, these efficiency gains can drive reductions in power consumption that are sometimes larger than the additional electricity required to switch from natural gas to heat pumps. By combining building energy efficiency and electrification, the decarbonization of commercial and institutional buildings can facilitate grid decarbonization.

The Opportunity: Better buildings and zero emissions through modernization

In a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, the SSG/RMI Roadmap to Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region shows how an integrated, whole-building approach to the renewal of federal buildings can result in better buildings that are fossil fuel-free and have lower aggregate electricity consumption than they do today. While the mix of technologies and the energy and emissions outcomes vary from one building to the next, we found that aggregate electricity consumption could be reduced by 25% or more, even as the gas-heated stock is electrified. This is the opportunity created by the convergence of an aging stock, a climate change imperative, and a new generation of building technologies that have transformed the art of the possible.

The convergence of these trends has created an opportunity for the Government of Canada to implement a building decarbonization strategy with a strongly positive economic outcome.  The recommended scenario incorporates deep energy retrofits into 3.9 million square metres of existing government buildings. Compared to the business-as-usual energy-related equipment costs of $4.0 billion, the incremental cost of the retrofit technologies is $1.3 billion, most of which is returned in the form of a billion dollars in fuel and electricity savings. In addition, converting older buildings to more efficient, healthier indoor spaces directly and measurably improves employee well-being productivity worth more than the corresponding fuel and electricity savings. Add in the 50,000+ person-years of direct employment that the government’s investment would generate in the local economy, the avoided social costs of carbon, the reputational benefits to the Government of Canada, the reduced public health costs, and the social capital benefits to the community, and the economic case is open and shut.

The Roadmap shows how the government’s offices can be replaced with dynamic spaces and flexible work arrangements that make its employees healthier and happier. It is a blueprint for creating spaces with better ventilation and temperature controls, all of which enhance focus, productivity, and efficiency. By choosing the path of carbon neutrality, the Canadian government can become a model. It can show all kinds of organizations—from municipal governments to large corporations to other countries—that addressing the climate crisis is about so much more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is an opportunity to build vibrant, healthy, and resilient communities. It is a chance to step onto the best path for our future.

For more insights on how to build a carbon-free future, sign up for the monthly SSG Newswire and updates from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Team.

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Ralph Torrie is a Senior Consultant at SSG and an internationally recognized expert in the field of sustainable energy and climate change response strategies for governments and business.

Combining Electrification and Deep Retrofits to Decarbonize Canada’s Buildings

In the face of the climate crisis, organizations are looking to electrification and renewable energy as a way to get buildings, energy systems, and vehicles off of fossil fuels. But fears abound that plugging too many things into the grid could overwhelm the system and lead to blackouts.

Over the past two years, Rocky Mountain Institute, SSG, and whatIf? Technologies explored this challenge as a part of a consulting project for the Government of Canada to create a pathway to reduce its operational emissions in the National Capital Region to net zero by 2050. Our analysis suggests that by combining electrification with deep energy efficiency retrofits, we can stave off an increase in building-level electricity demand and demand peaks on the electric grid.

Why the Canadian Government Needs to Fuel Switch

In order to decarbonize, the Government of Canada needs to switch away from natural gas for heating buildings. In 2016, the federal government’s operations in the National Capital Region (NCR) emitted 370 kilotons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). More than 60 percent of emissions from the federal government’s operations come from buildings, most of it from burning natural gas for heating.

 

Emissions by fuel from federal operations in the NCR, 2016. (Designer: Naomi Devine/SSG)

Federal buildings tend to be old, drafty, and overdue for an upgrade. Nearly 50 percent of the government’s building floor area is classified as “in poor or critical condition”. The low emissions intensity of the electricity in Ontario and Quebec—which is powered by hydro—makes electrification paired with high-performance building envelope upgrades an ideal solution to simultaneously upgrade and decarbonize buildings.

Modeling shows that the cost to decarbonize the federal building stock is just 4 percent above what must be spent to maintain the current building stock over the next three decades, as they fall into further disrepair.

The Promise of Heat Pumps

The government’s building upgrades can include switching from natural gas to electric heat pumps that use ambient air, water, or ground temperature as a heat source, or sink, to heat buildings in the winter and cool them in the summer. While building professionals once thought heat pumps to be ineffective in colder climates, the technology has improved by leaps and bounds. A wide range of heat pumps are now available for colder climates and commercial-scale use.

To help the Canadian government figure out how to use heat pumps in more than 2,000 buildings in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, RMI used its Portfolio Energy Optimization modeling approach. Portfolio Energy Optimization aggregates buildings across the portfolio while customizing the energy models per building to represent existing conditions in each facility. We considered different types of heat-pump applications bundled with high-performance thermal envelope and energy efficiency upgrades tailored to residential, commercial, and mixed-use buildings. The results were then fed into whatIf?’s and SSG’s CityInSight model to assess energy consumption and emissions across the entire building portfolio out to 2050, accounting for changing costs, emissions factors, and portfolio-wide asset management plans.

This modeling demonstrated that decarbonizing the federal government building portfolio in the NCR is technically and economically feasible over the next three decades. If combined with deep energy efficiency retrofits like building envelope upgrades, heating electrification of nearly all of the building stock would cost $850 million more than planned building upgrades between 2020 and 2050, while saving about $700 million in energy costs and nearly eliminating emissions. The net cost of $150 million is a drop in the bucket compared with how much the government already spends on building operations. The Canadian National Capital Region has a pivotal opportunity to transform its federal buildings portfolio while minimizing the impact of demand growth on the electric grid.

Building Decarbonization and Electric Demand

The grid can manage large-scale electrification of heating only if it’s paired with measures that manage demand peaks. That’s where building envelope retrofits—upgrading windows, walls, and roofs—come in. Together, these strategies change the profile and timing of building electricity consumption by limiting peak demand.

For buildings on the Ottawa side of the NCR, envelope upgrades can reduce peak demand by limiting heat gains and losses through insulation and lower air infiltration, while electrification may shift these peaks from the summer (cooling demand) to the winter (heating demand). Our models suggest that the heat pumps and envelope upgrades, along with other efficiency measures, will lead to a post-retrofit winter peak that is not much higher than the original summer peak. The net impact of retrofitting modeled buildings in Ottawa with high-performance envelopes and heat pumps on the electricity demand profile is illustrated in the figure below.

On the Gatineau side, most buildings are already heated with electricity, and electricity demand peaks in the winter. Retrofitting these buildings with envelope upgrades and heat pumps does not change the demand load profile through the year, but it reduces the total peak on the electricity grid by up to 25 percent.

Hourly electricity demand for federal buildings in Ottawa (top) and Gatineau (below), before and after retrofits with electrification. (Designer: Naomi Devine/SSG)

Our analysis shows that, when combined with efficiency retrofits, electrification of buildings using heat pumps can shift the time that electricity demand peaks and may even reduce annual electricity demand. As organizations and utilities plan for the future of electrification, efficiency is a critical way to minimize peak demand and make the transition to zero-carbon buildings viable.


For more insights on how to build a carbon-free future, sign up for the monthly SSG Newswire and updates from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Team.

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Lauren Malo has worked on energy and emissions plans across Canada and was a lead analyst for the Roadmap for Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region. She is a former Consultant at SSG. 

Sheldon Mendonca is a Manager with Rocky Mountain Institute’s buildings practice, where he leads projects with the Portfolio Energy Optimization initiative. Sheldon manages work with building portfolio owners across multiple sectors including federal and city governments, real-estate owners and large corporations. He has in-depth experience in net-zero carbon roadmap planning and deep energy retrofits in the commercial and multi-family building sectors.