Canada’s building stock currently amounts for an estimated 13 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. For the nation to reach its goal of being net zero by 2050, changes to the way we retrofit our current building stock, residential, commercial and ICI, will be necessary.
To understand how to reduce the emissions associated with our building stock takes proper identification of where the emissions are coming from.
“Most building operators don’t have an emissions inventory for their facility,” says Melissa Lecznar, Buildings Energy and Carbon Expert at WSP in Canada. “You have to understand what the carbon liability associated with your facility’s operations as the first step to decarbonizing existing buildings. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
Understanding the carbon liability isn’t always easy without the right expertise. It’s easy to point to emissions produced by burning fossil fuels or emissions associated through grid electricity consumption. But there are other, sometimes greater, sources of emissions that can be overlooked. As an example, one of the sources of Scope 1 emissions, defined by the U.S. EPA as “direct greenhouse (GHG) emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organization”, with the highest global warming potential are refrigerants used in building cooling systems. These emissions must be evaluated as part of a building’s overall emissions footprint.
The Dangers of Quick Wins
With an emissions inventory in place, a building owner can begin the development of a comprehensive decarbonization strategy for their building portfolio. There is no single solution to decarbonizing existing buildings and building owners often have competing priorities within their existing capital budgets that often don’t contemplate the cost of decarbonization or the risks associated with their carbon liability. The temptation is to look for the quick wins to begin the decarbonization journey and then leave the larger retrofit as a long-term target. According to Lecznar, this approach can often lead to more complex challenges when completed in isolation from a comprehensive strategy.
“When people think about retrofits, they often think about the quick projects that involve replacing an existing fixture or system with a more efficient model. It is critical to not do these on their own. We need to utilize these fast payback measures to help offset the unfavorable paybacks associated with deep retrofits that typically have a much larger impact on decarbonizing an existing facility. The strategy requires a comprehensive understanding of the facility’s emissions inventory baseline, the challenges of decarbonizing a building’s unique systems, and modelling the various pathway’s that target the renewal of aging infrastructure while addressing emission reduction opportunities. The sector needs to stop thinking about the individual retrofit projects, and transition to a facility or portfolio-based approach that considers packaging or phasing multi-measure projects to effectively target the challenges faced by today’s building operators.
In addition to the fiscal challenges posed in reducing emissions in Canada’s building stock, there are a series of government-controlled difficulties that have emerged.
Net zero transition policies are fragile, and are likely to undergo significant change, favorably or unfavorably, depending on the party in power. Some building owners are unlikely to significantly invest in initiatives like emissions reductions if not mandated, or fiscally rewarded to do so. That fiscal reward, read as grant program, can be a strong incentive for a building owner to consider an emissions reduction project, as the costs for deep retrofits can be cost-prohibitive as mentioned earlier. Clear policies and regulation are also inconsistent and do not provide a clear long-term mandate that would spur further innovation and action in the industry.
There are challenges in decarbonizing Canada’s existing building stock. But with the right expertise helping you understand your emissions inventory, and developing a comprehensive strategy to help you navigate your facility’s decarbonization pathway opportunities, you can achieve your organization’s emissions reduction goals.
Need advice on how to start your building’s decarbonization journey? Contact Melissa Lecznar and visit the WSP in Canada Climate Change, Resilience and Sustainability hub.
Be sure to check out the other articles in our series, looking at how we achieve net zero in industry sectors across Canada:
How do we achieve net zero in agriculture?
How do we achieve net zero in building materials?
How do we achieve industry-wide net zero?