How Ottawa plans to launch a climate-friendly construction boom
A comprehensive green building strategy is set to be unveiled early next year
Seven years after construction started, a 34-acre plot of once-contaminated industrial land in the middle of the Ottawa River is being celebrated as the most sustainable community in Canada.
The master-planned development between downtown Ottawa and Gatineau, Que. uses post-industrial waste to heat homes and businesses in winter and the river itself to generate cooling in the summer.
The net effect is a zero-carbon energy system that will power the development for decades to come, said project engineer and developer Scott Demark.
"It's a pretty massive victory," said Demark, president of Zibi Community Utility, which operates as the development's in-house energy provider.
He described the creation of Zibi's net-zero energy system as a massive undertaking — one that more developers could replicate with the right government incentives and requirements in place.
"I wish everybody was doing this. I wish the rules were tighter so you had to do it," he told CBC News.
But the federal government's current approach to encouraging climate-friendly housing and construction, he said, is "not enough and it's not fast enough."
Jesse Helmer, a researcher studying climate-friendly housing policy at the Smart Prosperity Institute, said Canada needs federal government action to make buildings significantly more efficient in order to reach its national emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050.
"What the federal government does on that front is critical," Helmer said.
Minister says federal investments 'not nearly enough'
Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson acknowledges the federal government has a bigger role to play.
"There are significant additional resources that we are going to need to mobilize," he said. "The federal government has made significant commitments but it's not nearly enough."
More money will be needed from other levels of government and the private sector as well, Wilkinson said.
This month, the government launched consultations on its green building strategy, which is due for release early next year.
Wilkinson predicted the strategy will unleash a "boom" in green building construction and jobs.
Greenhouse gas emissions from buildings accounted for 18 per cent of Canada's total emissions in 2020 — about 87.8 megatonnes — making it the third-highest source of emissions after oil and gas production and transportation.
Canada has vowed to slash emissions from the building sector by 37 per cent by 2030 and then achieve net-zero in the sector by 2050.
Efficiency Canada, an organization housed at Carleton University which researches energy efficiency strategies, estimates that doing all this would require an annual investment of $20-$32 billion a year.
The role of individual homeowners
Ottawa is also urging individual homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient through retrofits and renovations.
A new $4.4 billion loan program announced in the 2021 federal budget — the Canada Greener Homes Loan — promises to provide loans to up to 175,000 homeowners who take on "extensive energy retrofits." The list of qualifying projects includes the replacement of windows, doors and insulation and the installation of solar panels.
The program offers interest-free loans ranging from $5,000 to $40,000. The loans must be paid back within 10 years.
Helmer said prior versions of this program have proved popular but demonstrated the need for fine-tuning to get projects approved more quickly.
"It's combining ambition with practicality," he said. "With the existing Greener Homes grants and loans, it's easy to get to bottlenecks and backlogs."
A separate, similar program launched by the federal government in 2021 has provided $38 million in grants to around 10,000 Canadians. Demand outstripped supply, however; more than 170,000 people had applied for the program as of June 2022.
A labour shortage could threaten plans
But a problem looms that could sink the federal government's efforts to meaningfully improve energy efficiency in buildings — a shortage of skilled labourers to do the work.
Economists at the Bank of Montreal and elsewhere have pointed out that Canada's construction industry is already "pushing against labour and capacity constraints" that could jeopardize plans to build new homes or retrofit existing ones.
Figures compiled by Statistics Canada show that job vacancies in the construction and trades sector are up nearly 160 per cent over a two-year period.
Helmer said the national labour shortage will have to be resolved somehow before significant progress can be made on improving the efficiency of Canada's buildings.
"We can design as many programs as we want … but until we start targeting the labour side of that issue, I think we're going to run into some scaling problems," he said.
Another challenge will be making sure the construction labour force reflects Canada, said Rosemarie Powell, who organizes the annual NexGen Builders Retreat for racialized people pursuing careers in construction.
She cites statistics that show people of colour make up half the population of the City of Toronto but only 22 per cent of unionized construction workers.
"The government is driving the work that needs to be done on climate change," Powell said. "The next level that we need to consider is that there's equity and diversity among the people who are working on these building projects."
Wilkinson said addressing the labour shortage is a "big challenge." To solve it, the minister said the government needs to engage young people — especially Indigenous youth — and consider changes to Canada's immigration policies.