Can Toronto’s buildings be carbon-neutral?

Toronto buildings

Urban areas generate over 70% of global carbon pollution.

Earlier this month, the International Union of Architects (UIA) issued a stunning announcement. Member organizations of the UIA – representing more than 1.3 million architects in 124 countries around the world – unanimously adopted the “2050 Imperative,” a declaration to eliminate CO2 emissions in the built environment by 2050.

This lofty goal was initiated by Architecture 2030, a non-profit research organization with the mission of transforming the built environment from a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to climate change.

Specifically, the 2050 Imperative states that:

  • failing to act now on climate change will put future generations, and those already affected by extreme weather, natural disasters, and poverty, at great risk;
  • urban areas are responsible for over 70% of global CO2 emissions, mostly from buildings;
  • over the next two decades an area roughly equal to 60% of the world’s building stock will be built and rebuilt in urban areas; and
  • this provides an unprecedented opportunity to reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions to zero by 2050.

Living in Canada’s largest city, we have to ask how Toronto can participate in this movement. There is, in fact, a Toronto member group – Toronto 2030 District – a relatively young organization that is currently in the process of forming partnerships to create a common vision and strategic course of action for long term greenhouse gas reduction across downtown Toronto.  The Toronto 2030 District has identified a lack of overall coordination within the conservation community as a key barrier. This includes programs and policies that use different targets or measurement processes and a lack of detailed district-wide information on consumption by building floor area, type, age, and use. Much of the available data exists in different formats and databases but is not brought together in such a way that it can inform strategic decision making for policy development, infrastructure planning, conservation program targeting and energy/water use tracking.

Toronto Atmospheric Fund will be a key partner for the Toronto 2030 District in supporting the alignment of energy conservation policies and programs with the shared goal of dramatically reducing fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions generated by the city’s building stock.

We are already moving in the right direction. TAF was instrumental in raising the standards for energy efficiency in the construction of Toronto’s new buildings through the Toronto Green Standard, whereby buildings must exceed the efficiency requirements set out in the Ontario Building Code (OBC) by 15%. Buildings that exceed the OBC standards by 25% or more can qualify for a substantial development charge refund of up to $31/m2.

We are also exploring how energy reporting policies can be best implemented. These policies entail benchmarking the energy consumption of individual buildings annually. Data out of the U.S. shows a positive correlation between tracking energy use and reducing energy consumption. If Toronto launched an energy reporting requirement next year for all commercial and multi-residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet, annual GHG emissions would drop by approximately 350,000 tonnes per year.

Can Toronto’s buildings be carbon neutral by 2050? This is the moment to join a global effort within the building sector to push toward an ambitious, but certainly achievable, goal.

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The art of the retrofit

paint brushes

A holistic approach to retrofits requires design as well as engineering.

The quandary of making buildings more energy efficient without forfeiting comfort and air quality is one that, as an engineer at TAF, I am preoccupied with. Sure I want to reduce leakage in the building envelope. But I also understand the need for fresh air and windows that open.

The more I study the built environment, the more I realize we need to approach the art of building retrofits in a holistic way, which is why I recently attended a full-day design “charrette” for a Toronto Community Housing building.  For those of you not familiar with the term, design charrettes are events where all the participants in a project come together so that, at the outset, the consequences of a wide variety of decisions can be considered by all those affected.  By having everyone at the table, a diverse group of stakeholders can share their perspectives on a particular design problem ensuring that trade-offs are fully understood and potential synergies realized.

In this instance, I joined architects, engineers, developers, suppliers and representatives from Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), local utilities, City Hall staff, and representatives from Sustainable Buildings Canada.  TAF has already been working closely with TCHC as we prepare plans to implement energy-efficient retrofits for seven TCHC buildings.  Our goal at the charrette was to brainstorm cost-effective ways to reduce water, electricity and natural gas consumption while making the building a more comfortable place to live.

The day before the charrette, we were taken on a tour of the site. TCHC’s community engagement specialists said that they had been consulting with residents since the beginning of the year to ensure that everyone who wanted to provide input on proposed changes could.  Through open houses, surveys, and door-to-door visits, our guides were able to determine features of the property that residents treasured most as well as highlight areas that could be renovated or repurposed.  For example, while we were up on the roof taking in a spectacular view of the lake, I wondered if we could find a way to transform the space into a rooftop garden, creating a common area in a lovely setting (albeit seasonal) in a building where residents would benefit from more access to green space.

At the charrette the next day, we learned that residents’ most common concerns included uneven heating and cooling, which was related to the state of the windows, elevators that break down, and safety and security issues.  Not surprisingly, their concerns aligned with the priorities identified by previous building condition assessments that noted the need to replace the windows and many components of the heating and ventilation systems, as well as the need to upgrade the elevators and add more security cameras.

As a group, we began brainstorming how we could best meet these needs within the constraints of the TCHC budget.  We split into two sub-groups: energy and sustainability.   Those of us focused on energy performance compared the merits of centralized versus decentralized heating and ventilation systems, alternatives ways to provide cooling to all residents and improvements to the building envelope such as window replacements and overcladding. The sustainability sub-group investigated alternative site layouts that would optimize the outdoor space available for residents, ways to make the lobby more welcoming and ideas for water conservation and storm water management.

At the end of the day, we reconvened to share our ideas and to look for synergies or challenges that we may have missed in our smaller groups.  This is where the true value of the charrette lies.  With representatives from so many different stakeholder groups, we can consider the residents’ point of view as well as that of the contractor, the manager, and the building owners simultaneously.  A more conventional approach doesn’t always allow for all of these stakeholders to influence the outcome.  Instead, they often discover what will be done to a building after most of the decisions have been made.  For example, the contractor would normally be involved only after the construction drawings were completed and residents would only see the completed project.

As TAF embarks on a seven-building retrofit project with TCHC next year, we will be undertaking a similarly integrated approach to design and welcomed this opportunity to experience the process.  Ultimately, buildings are for people. If residents don’t like living in them, then we need to do something differently.

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Participating in the Natural Gas Demand-Side Management Guidelines


Law and sausage are two things you don’t want to see being made. We hope you feel differently about the natural gas guidelines.

Otto von Bismark famously said that Law and sausage are two things you do not want to see being made,” and you would be forgiven if you believed this observation could be applied to the upcoming consultations on the revisions to the Natural Gas Demand-Side Management (DSM) Guidelines.

OK, implementing the Ontario government’s commitment to conservation is probably less glamorous than a climate change summit in Paris, but nevertheless very important.  Just how great the need is to accelerate gas conservation efforts was noted in the Ontario Environmental Commissioner’s recently-released report in which industry and buildings were identified as two main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in this province.

Ontarians use 25 million cubic metres of natural gas per year, producing 50 megatonnes or 30% of the province’s carbon emissions annually.  (New studies indicate that methane emissions released during natural gas extraction and from gas pipelines are over and above the emissions quantification associated with consumption.)  To reach Ontario’s 2020 GHG reduction target, the province’s annual emissions must drop by 17 megatonnes.  Reducing the consumption of natural gas by a mere 1% each year between now and then will bring us 15% closer to that goal.

Which brings us back to why we need to participate in the process of updating the natural gas guidelines, which the Minister of Energy, Bob Chiarelli, directed be done to achieve “all cost-effective conservation.”

Our key recommendation is to follow the Minister’s directive: achieve all cost-effective conservation.  There is lots of efficiency resource which is cheaper than new supply.   Conservation targets should be informed by bottom-up conservation potential studies.  If Ontario mirrored similar (cold-weather) jurisdictions in the US with similarly ambitious conservation goals, savings targets would be 1-2 percent of total gas sales and conservation budgets would be at least $200 million per year, tripling the current level of investment.

Of key importance is the choice of cost-effectiveness test – it should include all the costs and benefits, including those that are all-too-often excluded like impacts on health, vulnerable communities, and climate change.

The gas utilities should be able to earn a decent return on their investments in conservation – as good or better than the return on new supply.  They currently earn “shareholder incentives” for conservation that are consistent with other utilities in North America, but these are awarded for savings significantly below comparable jurisdictions.  More effective approaches to measuring and rewarding performance would ensure that Enbridge and Union earn their incentives for exemplary performance, without changing the total incentive budget.   To underpin this, a system of robust, detailed (facility and sector levels) and regular (at least every 3 years) measurement of DSM performance is needed.

The Minister specifically directed that the new DSM policy focus on integrated gas and electricity conservation programs, which is especially relevant for retrofitting buildings. Since coordinated program delivery can have multiple benefits – lower costs, better reach, more market clarity – the gas and electric utilities should be required to implement and document their collaborative activities and results. Building on the current Gas DSM framework, they should also be required to explore and pursue fuel-switching options that are economic and lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The point of all this technical re-design is to ensure that the utilities invest in all cost-effective conservation.  While gas rates will go up slightly, the overall savings will far outweigh the investment.  Take 2012 as an example of great value for money: Ontario’s two gas utilities spent approximately $62 million on conservation (less than $0.0024 per m3 of gas sold) and that will save customers about $460 million over the lifetime of the measures.

The key is to design the programs to maximize participation, so that all stakeholders can benefit.  Investment in conservation also leads to better buildings, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and green, local economic development opportunities across a range of sectors.

At TAF, we’re the first to admit that it all gets a little nerdy, but a new natural gas guideline could in fact be a game-changer.

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Why you should read the Environmental Commissioner’s latest report

Sunny sky

The last 30 years have been the warmest period in 1,400 years.

If you live in Ontario, care about our fragile natural world, and hope very much that your descendants won’t experience 50 days a year where temperatures soar above 35 C, consider reading the very readable report,  Looking for Leadership; the costs of climate inaction. Recently published by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, the document is – no surprise – sobering. But it’s also quite interesting, very important, clearly written, and points to solutions – actions we can realistically undertake that will result in a meaningful difference.

As noted in the progress report, “Over the last 30 years, the mean temperature in each succeeding decade has been warmer than the previous; within the Northern Hemisphere this is likely to have been the warmest period during the previous 1,400 years.”

Ontario’s three largest sources of GHG emissions are industry, transportation and buildings with the transportation sector being the largest single contributor having produced a 24% increase in emissions since 1990. (On the other hand, vehicle emissions have remained stable since 2005 as cars and light trucks have become more fuel efficient.)

The built environment remains the third largest emitter of climate pollution in the province, and TAF warranted a mention for our work on lowering the carbon emissions generated by the energy required to heat, cool and run buildings.

We focus on buildings because this is the source of nearly half of Toronto’s emissions and is the third largest GHG emitting sector in the province.  Even so, thanks to improvements in codes and standards, increased floor space no longer equates to an increase in GHG emissions in the residential sector. Similarly, among commercial and institutional buildings across the province, floor space grew by 45% between 1990 and 2011, while associated emissions increased by only 26%.

Amendments to the Ontario Building Code include energy efficiency requirements of the kind that the City of Toronto already established through the Toronto Green Standard, an initiative where TAF was instrumental. Toronto requires that energy efficiencies in new buildings are at least 15% better than the standards set out in the Ontario Building Code.

In collaboration with The Clean Air Partnership, we are now working with the Ministry of Energy to realize a comprehensive energy efficiency retrofit program that is best able to reduce provincial energy demand, generation and costs; increase local economic development opportunities; and improve the resilience of Ontario’s population to future energy cost increases.

The Environmental Commissioner’s Office believes that if marketed properly, this program has the potential to broadly reduce energy use and its associated carbon footprint in existing buildings.

We echo the message in this report that we can transition to a low-carbon economy. We need to keep up the momentum of what’s in place, push ahead with new initiatives, and stick to the shared commitment between Toronto and Ontario to lower GHG emissions by 80% by 2050.

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Toronto City Council wants action on climate change

City Hall staff must show how Toronto can meet its climate change targets.

City Hall staff must show how Toronto can meet its climate change targets.

Last week, Toronto City Council unanimously passed a motion asking city staff to draft a plan outlining how Toronto will meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Perhaps galvanized by the Environmental Commissioner’s recent report on the province’s actions on climate – which the report described as falling short of what is needed to achieve Ontario’s targets –Council is demonstrating concern for municipal action toward the 2050 goal of an 80% reduction in GHG emissions – a target the city adopted in the Climate Change Action Plan and the Power to Live Green.

City staff have their work cut out for them. Council listed specific pieces of information that should appear in the plan, which include an analysis of the largest sources of GHG emissions (buildings and transportation); rolling out consultations with diverse stakeholders (Councillors, department staff, community leaders); and working with other municipal governments in addition to provincial and federal levels of government.

Moreover, Council is asking for annual updates starting in 2015 on the the progress the city is making toward our reductions targets. Toronto has already cut GHG emissions by 15% below 1990 levels, exceeding the 2012 target of a 6% reduction.  Reaching the 2020 goal of a 30% reduction will be much harder, so it is essential that we have a clear and collaborative plan.  And while it may seem far away, there is no time to waste in establishing a pathway to the ambitious 2050 target of an 80% reduction.

We strongly believe that this plan will lay important groundwork as we transition to a low-carbon future. Toronto has an opportunity here to establish its place as a leader in environmental responsibility alongside other cities around the world that are taking bold actions towards urban sustainability.

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