Retrofitting Canadian buildings could bring 200,000 jobs, along with healthier spaces

Canada’s Renovation Wave: A plan for jobs and climate was released by the Pembina Institute on July 14. Borrowing a term originated in a 2020 European Commission report, the authors present a simplified scenario outlining how we could convert the 63% of Canadian buildings currently heated with natural gas or oil to electricity.  This, combined with the rapid decarbonization of the electricity grid, would result in significantly lower carbon emissions while generating more than $48 billion in economic development and creating up to 200,000 jobs .  Drawing on a 2018 report from Clean Energy Canada, Canada’s Renovation Wave asserts that energy efficiency jobs are inherently labour intensive and create a higher number of jobs than other industries – for example, whole building retrofits are estimated to create an average of 9.5 gross direct and indirect jobs for every $1 million invested.

The authors estimate that “priming the pump for this transformation” will require public investments of about $10 to $15 billion per year, from now until 2040 (or until appropriate regulatory drivers are in place). Much of this sum is directed to subsidies and incentive programs, but it also includes a recommendation for $300 million per year to be spent on skill development, capacity building and recruitment to grow and diversify the energy efficiency and green building workforce.

Related reading: “If heat waves become the new normal, how will our buildings have to change?” (The National Observer, July 2) quotes Pembina author Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze who  relates the need for retrofitting to the health impacts of  the recent B.C. heatwave.

Aalso, Canada’s Climate Retrofit Mission emphasizes the urgency of the task and outlines market and policy innovations to speed up the process and achieve economies of scale to reduce costs.  Authors Brendan Haley and Ralph Torrie state that, at the current pace,  it will take 142 years to retrofit all low-rise residential buildings and 71 years to retrofit all commercial floor area  in Canada. The report was published by  Efficiency Canada in June 2021.  

Future skills for the energy efficient building workforce

A recent report from ECO Canada,  Assessment of Occupational and Skills Needs and Gaps for the Energy Efficient Buildings Workforce, focuses on the occupations and skills needed for designing, constructing, managing, and retrofitting energy efficient commercial and institutional buildings and multi-unit residential buildings.  The report states that much of the technology, materials, and processes are in place, but workforce skills still need to be developed – for example, under a “building-as-a-system” approach,  workers are increasingly called upon to function within multi-disciplinary teams, requiring soft skills such as collaboration and facilitation. Such a system also requires a workforce culture shift. A section called “ Future-Proofing the Energy Efficient Building Sector”  provides a summary of core and growing occupations and skills related to design, construction, operation, and retrofitting of energy efficient buildings. The report assesses specific occupation skills and gaps, and recommends ways to connect with workers– and includes unions amongst the stakeholder groups which can support skills acquisition. The 73-page report is available for free download from this link (registration required).

Massachusetts climate legislation almost derailed by opposition to greener building code provisions

An Act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy was signed into law on March 26, summarized in Governor Charlie Baker’s press release, here . It is a sweeping and ambitious bill which sets emissions reduction targets, including six sectoral goals, culminating in net-zero emissions for the state by 2050; sets appliance efficiency standards; incentivizes electric vehicles; includes environmental justice protections; and orders funding for a clean energy equity workforce and market development program to support employment opportunities for certified minority- and women-owned small business and individuals living in environmental justice communities. 

And as described in “What You Need To Know About The New Mass. Climate Law”  (NPR, WBUR, March 26) ,the Roadmap legislation also authorizes the development of stretch energy codes for net-zero energy buildings. The Department of Energy Resources will announce the final version after public consultations for the next 18 months, after which municipalities can choose to adopt the model codes.  The building code provisions were the major sticking point in the political battle over this legislation, and triggered a Governor’s veto in 2020, thanks to organized opposition from the natural gas industry and real estate industry, both of whom see a potential threat of natural gas bans.  

This Massachusetts example is explained in “Sweeping Mass. climate law revives gas ban battle” (Mar. 29). The broader battle which is forming across the U.S.is described in “Developers clash with  U.S. Cities on vote for greener building codes” in The Energy Mix, and in “A Texas city had a bold new climate plan – until a gas company got involved” in The Guardian (March 1).   The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) describes how this conflict is playing out at the International Code Council (ICC), which sets model building code standards, and which “just threw out the elections process by which state and local government officials recently overcame powerful commercial interests to secure large energy savings.”

New centre for Vancouver to spur urban climate action, especially building retrofits

Retrofitting is a priority for the newly-announced  Metro Vancouver Zero Emission Innovation Centre, to be administered through the Renewable Cities program at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. According to the SFU press release of January 12, the Metro Vancouver Zero Emission Innovation Centre “will be seeded by a generous $21.7 million endowment from the federal government to identify, finance and scale up local climate solutions, such as building retrofits and electrification of transportation.”  The top priorities stated include “ “Identifying and initiating programmatic priorities, and integrating the Zero Emission Building Exchange to support building sector capacity building”.  For now, though, “the new centre’s work will start modestly. It is expected to grow steadily through partnership, programming investment, leveraging and innovative financing”.  The launch of the Centre is scheduled for  September 2021, after input is gathered “from a range of stakeholders, including local and provincial government, industry, non-profit organizations and the finance sector.”

The Vancouver Centre will be modelled on The Atmospheric Fund – originally known as the Toronto Atmospheric Fund when it was established in 1991 through the advocacy of then-Toronto City Councillors Jack Layton and Dan Leckie.  The Atmospheric Fund now serves Canada’s largest urban area, the Greater Toronto/Hamilton region of approximately 7 million people, and is part of  the  Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3), a  partnership which also includes Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, as well as  the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

In What does Canada’s new $15 billion plan mean for urban climate action?” (Dec. 15), The Atmospheric Fund reviews the federal government’s latest climate plan and discusses the two sectors most relevant to municipalities: buildings and transportation. The Atmospheric Fund states that its own priorities for 2021, include: “Partnering with housing providers to initiate deep retrofits in 3,000 housing units this year; Mobilizing $150 million in investment to leverage public funding and attract more capital into low-carbon activity;  Supporting municipalities to adopt green development standards for new buildings and performance standards for existing ones; Providing grants and investment capital to enable even more low-carbon activity like workforce development (clean jobs!) and EV charger installations; and Publishing new research on growing challenges like fugitive methane emissions and embodied carbon in new construction.” 

The governance of climate action in Toronto and Vancouver is summarized in a new article by three academics from the Universities of Waterloo and Toronto, “Strategies and Governance for Implementing Deep Decarbonization Plans at the Local Level, published in the latest issue of the journal Sustainability. It offers case studies of the best practices in climate action governance in Toronto and Vancouver, along with Bridgewater, Nova Scotia; Guelph, Ontario; Park City and New York City in the U.S., Lahti in Finland and Oslo in Norway. These cities range in size from 8,400 people to 9.6 million, but were chosen as “leading and ambitious” cities. The authors identify the importance of transnational networks in city decarbonization planning, and highlight their efforts “to expand their green economies and the capacity of their workforces to meet the future demand for skilled workers, especially in the buildings and construction sectors.”

And briefly:  A recent article in the New York Times also noted the importance of retrofitting: “New York’s real climate challenge: Fixing its aging buildings” (Dec. 29, New York Times). Stating that  “Nearly 70 percent of the city’s total carbon emissions come from buildings. A project to retrofit nine buildings with green technology is pioneering a new solution”.   The article describes the Casa Pasiva retrofitting project , one of a number of  RetrofitNY projects funded by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority.

European Journal of Industrial Relations Special Issue on Climate Change and Just Transition

“Trade Unions, Climate Change and Just Transition” is the theme of the December 2020 special issue of  the European Journal of Industrial Relations (Volume 26 #4).  In the introduction, EJIR editor Guglielmo Meardi acknowledges the paucity of academic industrial relations research on the issues of climate change, and states: “This Special Issue, edited with passion and experience by Linda Clarke and Carla Lipsig-Mummé, helps to fill the void. Its articles map the dilemmas of trade unions with regard to climate change and disentangle the issues raised by the idea of a Just Transition to a carbon-neutral economy. They show evidence of variation and influence in trade union actions on climate change and will certainly inspire more research on the complex problems they present.” 

All article abstracts are available here ; access to the full articles is restricted to subscribers. The following list links to the authors’ abstracts: “Future conditional: From just transition to radical transformation?” by Linda Clarke and Carla Lipsig-Mummé; “Just Transition on the ground: Challenges and opportunities for social dialogue”,  by Béla Galgóczi;  “Trade union strategies on climate change mitigation: Between opposition, hedging and support”, by Adrien Thomas and  Nadja Doerflinger; “Unions and the green transition in construction in Europe: Contrasting visions”, by Linda Clarke and Melahat Sahin-Dikmen; “Innovating for energy efficiency: Digital gamification in the European steel industry”, by Dean Stroud, Claire Evans and Martin Weinel; and “From Treadmill of Production to Just Transition and Beyond” by Paolo Tomassetti.