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Vancouver creates precedent-setting building carbon targets

The City of Vancouver’s regulations to slash embodied emissions from new construction are some of...

IMAGE: The City of Vancouver is leading the way in North America on efforts to cut embodied carbon in buildings. (Google Maps)

The City of Vancouver is leading the way in North America on efforts to cut embodied carbon in buildings. (Google Maps)

The City of Vancouver’s regulations to slash embodied emissions from new construction are some of the most stringent in North America, according to a consultant who works with developers to deliver climate-smart construction.

In the next eight years, Vancouver aims to reduce its carbon pollution by 50 per cent, a response to findings by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To that end, there is a city plan to reduce embodied carbon of large new buildings by 40 per cent by 2030.

By 2025, it’s expected that operational emissions from all new buildings will be cut to nearly zero. The target for all large existing office and retail buildings is a 40 per cent reduction in carbon pollution by 2030, and zero emissions by 2040 compared to 2007 levels.

Since 2017, Vancouver has already required new rezoning applicants to report embodied carbon emissions. And since May 2021, the city bylaws have allowed mass timber construction up to 12 storeys in an attempt to reduce embodied carbon.

Vancouver’s six “big moves” and buildings

There are six “big moves” approved as part of the city’s climate emergency action plan released in November 2020. City council also updated its climate change adaptation strategy, a roadmap for building a city resilient enough to handle everything the climate crisis throws at it.

To keep the targets on track, council approved updates to the plan on May 17, including changes to the building by-law. As of 2023, all new larger buildings will be required to report embodied carbon emissions.

By 2025, it aims for reductions in those buildings of 10 to 20 per cent, according to City of Vancouver green building engineer, Patrick Enright.

It is the first regulation of its type in North America, he said in an email to SustainableBiz.

“These proposed changes in new buildings will avoid 4,600 tonnes a year by 2030 of operational carbon pollution and 18,900 tonnes a year of embodied carbon,” Enright wrote.

Actions that will also impact developers include requiring cooling and air filtration systems in new buildings that will protect residents from climate change phenomena such as the heat dome, and options other than gas for cooking and fireplaces in new residential buildings.

The embodied carbon component

Zahra Teshnizi, urban sustainability expert and senior advisor with Mantle Developments, said the plan stands out because it goes beyond energy consumed by the operation of a building, including targets to cut embodied carbon emissions by 2040.

It also looks at setting emissions limits for existing buildings that can be achieved through retrofits and switching to renewable energy.

Mantle Developments, whose clients include large developers, helps minimize the carbon impact of projects under development. It also advises governments on anything climate related, including the City of Vancouver.

“With the City of Vancouver approach for larger buildings, instead of telling (developers) what they should do, they tell them the target. ‘Here is what emission you should have. Go figure it out.’ The city won’t tell them how,” Teshnizi explained.  “If building a taller tower, they have the same limit with other high-rise buildings. They can’t use more energy than what they set.”

The plan covers four of the six “big moves,” focused on cutting emissions from transportation and buildings. The two moves that slash carbon emissions from buildings are “progressive and bold,” she said.

City sets targets, developers decide how to meet them

One move that aims to cut building carbon pollution by half promotes switching from natural gas to electricity or renewable natural gas, and switching from gas furnaces to heat pumps. Heating of buildings and water accounts for 57 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions (as of 2020), according to city data. The rest comes from vehicles.

“The building bylaw will be updated at the beginning of 2023 to require a specific percentage of reduction in embodied carbon,” said Teshnizi. “It starts with 10 or 20 per cent, then goes to 40 per cent, by 2030. We do know that mass timber or biomaterials can be a promising solution and they can reduce the emissions of the materials if sourced from sustainably managed forests. But the city is not going to tell you that you must use mass timber.

“Instead, [developers] can use it because the city allows it, and the city is working with developers and experts to remove barriers and make permitting easy.”

The majority of embodied carbon emissions occur during the production phase, Teshnizi explained.

“When a material is manufactured, it’s not necessarily releasing the emissions in the City of Vancouver, and it’s not under the direct control of the City of Vancouver, so by setting a target for that, Vancouver is going beyond the responsibility that the majority of jurisdictions are taking. It’s taking responsibility for emissions that may happen outside of Vancouver.”

Much of the success of the plan depends on council decisions, as well as substantial funding. In a city staff progress report from 2021, the only big move that had a high likelihood of reaching its 2030 target was slashing emissions in new construction by 40 per cent. That’s because enough developers had embraced mass timber construction and the use of low-carbon cement, as well as reducing costly parking space.

Adoption of heat pumps could get boost

The goal of zero-emission heating by switching from gas furnaces and hot water tanks to heat pumps, however, is still a learning curve for consumers. That target got a “medium likelihood” of meeting its 2030 goal.

It should help that FortisBC announced Wednesday it is introducing the first commercial rebate offer in Canada for gas absorption heat pumps. As part of a pilot program from 2019, the innovative heat pumps showed a reduction of energy consumption of up to 35 per cent, and the potential to cut emissions by half.

Fortis is offering rebates to eligible building owners to cover the costs of study on the new technology, as well as the installation. The program is widely available to commercial customers.

Another big move includes the creation of walkable communities, to be addressed by the citywide Vancouver Plan, which soon goes before council. There is also a major move to improve transportation and transit, including reduced parking requirements for new developments.

While meeting its objectives could be challenging, Teshnizi said the city’s efforts to go beyond operational emissions and look into the full life cycle of buildings, from manufacture and on-site development through to demolition, is a hopeful sign of things to come.

“Vancouver is the first city in North America that is setting such targets,” she said.

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