The federal budget must include a long-term energy-retrofit agenda for our buildings if we are to achieve a net-zero emissions future by 2050.

Canadians voted in October 2019 for strong action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Energy efficiency is a tool in our climate action toolbox that was featured in the platforms of all political parties represented in Parliament, and one that Canadians can unite behind. Twenty-two percent of our end-use greenhouse gas emissions comes from warming, cooling and powering our residential and commercial-institutional buildings — the places we live, work, gather and play. We have a substantial opportunity in the next few decades to slash the pollution our buildings create, while creating jobs and making our lives more comfortable.

Specific energy-retrofit commitments — such as free energy audits, interest-free loans and mobilizing private capital to pursue deep retrofits of office towers — are featured in the mandate letters to federal ministers. A massive scale-up of energy retrofits is needed to meet the government’s commitment to achieve a net-zero emissions future by 2050.

The specific policies noted in the mandate letters must be supported in the upcoming budget, so we can get started. Equally important, the government should clearly signal that these policies are part of a long-term agenda to completely decarbonize the building stock, and to effectively implement this agenda by leveraging the wider network of utilities, municipalities and private sector players that is working on upgrading our buildings.

Scaling up to net zero

To build a net-zero emissions economy, we need to dramatically expand the number of deep retrofits in a year. This means innovations in program strategies, business models and efforts to mobilize finance. We must figure out how to move from incremental one-by-one projects toward a systemized approach that is able to achieve economies of scale. In the process, our markets will be transformed so the most efficient products and designs — the ones that maximize our comfort and save us the most energy — become the norm, rather than the exception.

Other jurisdictions are implementing strategies to achieve these goals. The European Union has set a goal to decarbonize the building stock by 2050, leading some countries to set targets to retrofit 3 percent of the building stock per year, or higher in their long-term renovation strategies (we estimate that Canada is currently below 1 percent per year). And a proposal before the US Senate would create a $35-billion National Climate Bank to finance retrofits and clean energy projects.

Leveraging what we already have

The good news is that the federal government does not have to reach this goal alone. There is an entire system of private sector partners, municipalities and provincial regulators, utilities and government agencies already working to save energy every day. The federal government needs a plan to leverage this infrastructure, and to catalyze it to start reaching energy savings at a much larger scale.

Most energy efficiency programs are operated by electricity and natural gas utilities. Their primary objective is to avoid more expensive energy system costs, rather than long-term decarbonization. Sometimes deeper energy savings aren’t possible because of budget restrictions on provincial utility programs, or because the cost-benefit analyses that justify these programs don’t consider carbon emissions. Federal policies can shoulder the costs of deeper retrofit measures, while utilities can market the federal initiatives to their customers and use the partial covering of retrofit costs as a rationale for expanding their energy savings programs.

In addition, municipalities can leverage mechanisms like the Green Municipal Fund to provide community-based financing, upgrade public buildings and support social housing retrofits. These initiatives must work in conjunction with new federal programs, and the federal government can leverage the potential economies of scale by retrofitting similar building types in a given municipality all at once.

Listen to the energy efficiency sector

Right now, over 436,000 Canadians work in energy efficiency. Among these are the builders, installers and designers retrofitting our buildings today. Leveraging and expanding this workforce will create green, low-carbon jobs in communities across Canada.

As we further decarbonize, demand for these skills will increase, which is why an investment in capacity building through training of building trades and energy efficiency advisers is imperative. Workers and businesses need certainty that there will be consistent market demand and a future in deep retrofits. Rolling out programs and then removing them does significant harm to workforce development.

Let’s get started

A larger menu of programs and policies — things like mandatory energy efficiency improvements when existing buildings are altered and required energy efficiency labels — can ensure that every potential retrofit project is identified and receives the type of support that works best. Instead of searching for one silver bullet policy, government should produce a comprehensive mix of policies and programs that will enable the people working to enhance energy efficiency to remove the unique barriers confronted in different regions, types of buildings and end users. If we effectively mobilize and coordinate the entire energy efficiency policy system, Canadians will see easy-to-access and substantial energy savings opportunities. A signal that a federal energy-retrofit agenda is focused on creating an efficient and decarbonized building sector by 2050, if not sooner, will help mobilize all the actors and policies we need.

Given the enormity of the task ahead of us, we need to get going now. So let’s launch a new energy retrofit-agenda in the next budget by funding the proposed federal programs, and let’s not stop until we’ve completely decarbonized the building sector.

Photo: Infrared thermovision image showing lack of thermal insulation on house. Shutterstock, by Ivan Smuk.


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