Low-Carbon Building Codes, Policies, and Standards: Panacea or Problematic?
When most people think of cities, they immediately think of buildings. No surprise – they are the most obvious feature of a city. And buildings – particularly new buildings – are the focus of most city policies related to energy use and GHG emissions. Cities usually don’t have the power to implement carbon taxes. Few cities have control over the production of electricity. Cities have almost no control over industrial emissions. Cities can influence transportation, but they are heavily dependent on policies and market forces that transcend their borders, including vehicle efficiency standards, renewable fuel standards, insurance and safety policies, and funding of regional road and transit infrastructure. But the design standards for new buildings fall squarely within the control of city government, so it is no wonder they are a key pillar within most cities’ climate action plans.
There is no question that buildings are relevant for energy and climate policy. Fossil fuels used for electricity and heat required by buildings are the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions (about 25%). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, buildings accounted for 32% of total global final energy use and 19% of energy-related GHG emissions (including electricity-related) in 2010. Global statistics mask regional variations. In Canada, buildings accounted for about 17 percent of GHG emissions in 2014. But in the U.S., with a different pattern of industry and economic activity, buildings directly or indirectly account for about 50% of annual GHG emissions. In a city like Vancouver, with its already low per capita emissions (largely attributable to a dense urban form and green provincial electricity grid) heating buildings accounts for more than 50% of GHG emissions.
In recent years, we have tracked or participated in various updates to building codes, green building policies, and third-party standards intended to enhance energy performance and reduce GHG emissions from buildings. Vancouver has updated its building code and green building policies with a greater emphasis on carbon emissions. Toronto is following suit with updated green building policies. The Province of British Columbia has introduced a new voluntary Step Code for regulating energy use in buildings and Ontario has updated their Building Code with a Supplementary Standard (SB-10) related to Energy Efficiency in Buildings. Many other cities and provincial / state / national governments, as well as 3rd party green building certification organizations (such as LEED) are watching these processes and considering their own updates.
Some of the questions we will explore in this blog series include:
- Are emerging building codes, policies and standards – which focus almost exclusively on new buildings – enough to ensure a low-carbon society?
- Are they targeting the most significant, certain and cost-effective reductions in energy use and GHG emissions?
- Are they doing anything for existing buildings?
- What about facilitating and promoting important cross-sectoral linkages, such as resource recovery and the ongoing challenges of integrating more intermittent renewable energy into our electricity grids?
- Has actual building performance lived up to the promise of building designers and energy modellers?
- Are they sensitive enough to variations in context, building types and other values such as aesthetics, resilience and safety?
- Are there unintended consequences to these codes, policies and standards?
- What are some examples of international best practices?
These questions matter, but these issues haven’t gotten the same detailed policy review as electricity and transportation policy. So we’re going to use a series of blog posts to dive in. Stay tuned. We welcome comments and feedback.