Old buildings can be notoriously energy inefficient, and yet emphasis across all levels of government on emission reductions in buildings so far has largely focused on making new buildings more energy efficient. The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change calls for the adoption of a code requiring new buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. While this is an important goal, it is not enough.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy efficiency (including emissions reductions from buildings) accounts for 47 per cent of the total global energy supply investment required to limit long-term global temperature rise to under 2°C. However, Canada will not reach its climate targets by focusing solely on reducing emissions from new buildings. Estimates show that building code requirements for new construction in British Columbia will result in less than a third of the reductions needed in the building sector by 2050. The situation is likely not much better in other parts of Canada. That’s because most buildings that will be in existence in 2050 have already been built.

We need deep emission reductions in Canada’s building stock, but it won’t happen without the creation and implementation of a comprehensive plan for existing buildings. That’s why TAF and the Pembina Institute have called for a comprehensive federal strategy to decarbonize existing buildings. New research shows that a revision of the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB) that can be enforced onto existing buildings is key to reaching our climate targets.

The Pan-Canadian Framework commits Canada to the development of a national model code for existing buildings by 2022. The federal government must follow through and have a clear vision for a decarbonized building sector by 2050 by setting sector-specific reduction targets that the appropriate levels of retrofit activity for buildings. Provincial and territorial governments must follow with appropriate policies and funding.

Benefits of NECB-Guided Retrofits

The NECB is an important tool for the federal government to tackle energy efficiency in existing buildings. Strengthening the code would trigger energy retrofits that will yield a number of benefits that include:

  • Improved building performance and longevity
  • Increased indoor air quality, occupant health and comfort
  • Economic benefits, e.g. local job creation and training opportunities
  • Transparent energy usage through smart thermostats as well as energy and reporting and benchmarking

Right Policy Design Key to Success

Although there are inherent challenges surrounding the regulation and enforcement of performance standards for existing buildings, these issues can be addressed through careful code design and implementation.

Unique approaches will benefit the model code development process. For example, developing a more integrated model code for existing buildings could address other objectives such as fire protection and accessibility. Expanding the regulation development processes to consult a wider group (community groups and non-profits, academics, manufacturers and retrofit service providers, lenders, etc.) will promote dialogue.

Further, the code requirements must be fair and enforceable, and supported by programs to minimize financial and administrative burdens on building owners and municipalities. More work needs to be done to ensure widespread and timely adoption of these requirements.

Working together, all levels of government can play their role in developing and implementing this strategy to retrofit existing buildings. Code development at the federal level must fit into a larger strategy for deep emissions reductions in existing buildings that’s also carried out by municipalities and provinces. Toronto’s climate plan TransformTO recognizes the importance of retrofitting existing buildings. Approved by City Council in July 2017, the plan sets a goal of improving energy efficiency by 40 per cent for Toronto’s existing building stock.

If all levels of government work together on existing building energy efficiency, we’re one giant step closer to meeting Canada’s commitments. Let’s get started.