Building Kyoto

Canada is immersed in a debate about our commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, whether we should ratify the agreement or not, and if so, which strategies should be adopted to deliver on our commitment. Architects and Engineers have a role to play in this decision, which to date has been underrepresented and poorly understood by the political leaders in this country.

The Facts

Canadians create about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), but we represent only 0.05% of the global population. Canada is the ninth largest emitter of GHGs, and Canadians are the highest per capita creators of GHGs in the world, due to our North American levels of consumption, combined with our cold climate, geographically-driven high transportation costs and relatively strong energy production sector.

Our present GHG production is 696 million tonnes (MT) per year, and it is rising at 1.5% annually. Our Kyoto commitment (modified by the 2000 Morocco agreement on carbon sinks) stands at 571 MT/year, some 6% lower than our 1990 output. This level has to be achieved as an average of output in the years between 2008 and 2012. If we do nothing, Canada’s emissions in 2010 will be 809 MT, exceeding our Kyoto commitment by 32%.

Kyoto commitments will be legally binding when ratified by 55 of the committed nations, representing 55% of global 1990 GHG production. It is expected that the Protocol will be ratified by 2004-2005–with or without Canada.

The Impacts

Three times over the last 10 years, a group of 1,000 scientists–the UN appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)–have reported on global warming. Following is a summary of their findings and conclusions, which have been endorsed by 17 National Academies and 100 Nobel laureates:

For 10,000 years, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has remained very stable. Since the industrial revolution the CO2 in our atmosphere has doubled, almost entirely due to human activity.

The global average temperature has remained stable for the last 10,000 years, except that in the last 50 years it has risen 2.6C; in the last decade it has risen 1.6C. The 20th century was the hottest in the last 1,000 years; the 1990s were the warmest decade of the last century; 1999 and 2001 were the hottest years ever; and the first three months of 2002 were the warmest on record.

The impacts of global warming will be most severe in northern climates. Global average temperatures will rise between 1.4C and 5.8C this century, and Canadian temperatures are likely to rise considerably more. If GHG emissions growth is not arrested, forests in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec will burn. Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will become semi-arid wastelands. Toronto and Montreal will become unbearably hot in summer. The sea will inundate Prince Edward Island. The ecology of most of our country will be immeasurably and unpredictably altered.

The Politics

Ratifying Kyoto has become a political football. Both national newspapers deluge us with concerns about the costs of ratification to our economy, our GDP, the energy sector, and our competitive economic position vis–vis the U.S. (The U.S., at 30%, is the largest contributor of GHGs. The initial U.S. commitment at Kyoto was a 7% reduction of 1990 output. Since the election of President George W. Bush, the U.S. has revised its commitment to a target of 18% above 1990 emissions, some 25% more than their original target.) Our own federal government, once clearly committed to Kyoto, is getting uneasy with the political price it may have to pay to do the right thing. It has therefore recently published a White Paper, “Canada’s Contribution to Addressing Climate Change,” that proposes policies to meet Kyoto targets (see The government is seeking public input on these proposals.

The White Paper Proposals

Given that Canada must reduce GHGs by 240 MT by 2010, the White Paper proposes four scenarios. Option 1 focuses on a Domestic Emissions Trading (DET) system (buying GHG emissions permits). Option 2 explores the potential for industry to solve its own emissions problems. Option 3 combines DETs with large government purchases of GHG permits ($4 to $7 billion per year). Option 4 adds the hope that Canada can get credit for hydroelectric (clean) power sources.

The options suggested are weak proposals that essentially use the relative wealth of our country to buy our way out of the problem. DETs will allow wealthy emitting industries to buy themselves relief. Government purchase of emissions means you and I, as citizens, will be doing the purchasing. The estimated price of GHGs is $10/tonne, although the report recognizes the price could be as high as $50/tonne; therefore expectations are that the cost to taxpayers will be, at a minimum, between $3 and $9 billion per year. Several provinces are critical of even this weak policy proposal; Alberta has publicly opposed it.

Buying our way to Kyoto compliance is a shortsighted temporary fix that will cost Canadians a lot, year after year. The right solution for Canada should involve fixing the problem, changing our habits and the causes of emissions. The key realization for architects and engineers is that we can contribute to improving the performance of proposals under “targeted measures/industry initiatives,” a role that is not acknowledged and poorly understood by the authors of the White Paper.

Economic Realities

Encouraging Canadian industry and the private sector to develop solutions to reduce GHG emissions in their respective sectors will make our economy more efficient and more competitive. In the long run, our wasting of resources on unnecessary energy and material consumption will be lowered.

Estimates by the Analysis and Modeling Group (AMG), commissioned by all levels of government in this country that have looked at the issue, have reported that the economic impact on GDP of meeting Kyoto will range between zero and -2%. Given that our economy is expected to grow by 32% before 2010, the worst case economic prediction of impact will simply reduce this rate of growth to 30%. We can live with that!

The most progressive and successful GHG reduction plan in the country to date is the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ plan to reduce City-generated emissions by 20%. They are well on their way to achieving this goal, with a strong portfolio of strategies, from blue box recycling to windmill construction, being implemented in almost every city in the country. Cities are realizing significant benefits: air pollution levels are dropping, the quality of urban life is improving, and municipal costs are being lowered.

Leading corporations around the world have committed to meeting 1990 levels of emissions, and many are well on their way. DaimlerChrysler Canada has reduced GHGs per vehicle manufactured by 42% over the past decade; DuPont Canada has achieved its 10-year goal of 25% reduction in GHGs six years ahead of schedule; Syncrude Canada has reduced GHGs per barrel by 26% since 1988. As a result, these and many other Canadian companies are finding their levels of profitability are increasing because, of course, they are wasting less.

Most European countries are well on their way to meeting Kyoto, several will exceed it and none of them are showing negative economic impacts from their efforts to date.

Flaws Create Opportunities

Despite its limitations, the federal government White Paper is a good first step. At the very least there still appears to be an intention to find a way to meet Kyoto; however, two of the policy proposals are deeply flawed.

The strategy of purchasing GHG credits from other countries–which may seem politically expeditious in the short term–will ultimately encourage our industries and economy to be uncompetitive, because they will lag behind innovations being developed elsewhere. Whether the purchases are by industry (GHG emitter) via DETs or by the taxpayer via international credits, Canadians will pay the price, year after year, for the failure of our country and i
ndustries to get more efficient and actually reduce GHG emissions.

We should not be seeking to alter international GHG credit policies to give us credit for export of our “clean” hydroelectric and our “not-quite-so-dirty” (as coal) gas exports. As a country we will still be increasing our real rate of GHG production, with corresponding international GHG growth problems. Instead, we need to bolster industry-based initiatives and demonstrate, in every sector of the economy, where real solutions are possible to reduce GHGs.

The construction industry’s potential to contribute to the solution is hardly recognized in the White Paper. The role of buildings is finally acknowledged halfway through the report, and given only half a page of attention: the building industry should meet R2000 standards by 2010; new buildings should meet MNECB by 2010 (the Model National Energy Code for Buildings is one of the weakest energy codes in the developed world); 20% of existing buildings should be renovated (presumably to be more energy efficient) by 2010; and space and water heaters should be “technically” improved by 2010.

In the face of this obvious misunderstanding of the potential for the Canadian design and construction industry to assist with meeting Kyoto targets, consider the following:

Approximately 10 billion square metres of buildings exist in Canada at present. Six million square metres of space are added every year. Ten million square metres of space are renovated every year. Buildings contribute 10% of GHGs through direct operating energy consumption (69MT). The construction industry contributes another 30% of GHGs indirectly through the production, transportation and waste of materials. As examples, cement production alone accounts for 8% of GHGs, and construction debris accounts for 30-40% of garbage in our landfills. 8,000 architects and 20,000 engineers control most of these processes. We can have an impact!

We Have Solutions

The government White Paper suggests that buildings could deliver 1% (24MT) of the required GHG reductions. This target is pitifully low; we can do much better!

The Commercial Buildings Incentive Program (CBIP) from Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency has only been operating since 1998, but has already demonstrated that 25% savings in operating energy costs can be achieved with minimal capital cost increases in all regions of the country. The incentives have totaled $9 million to date; as of June 2002, 1,138 buildings have been involved, yielding an average energy performance reduction of 32%, or 0.025 tonnes per square metre of annual GHG reductions. CBIP confirms that this performance improvement has not caused any increase in building capital costs. Applied to all buildings in Canada, this level of performance could yield a permanent reduction of 30MT in GHGs per year.

Readily available architectural and engineering design strategies have been developed that are applicable to buildings in every part of the country: improved thermal envelope performance; rational envelope design improvements (orientation, massing, shading); natural ventilation, combined with operable windows and stack effect cooling; passive solar heating; thermal mass energy storage; ground effect preconditioning; energy budgeting with tolerance management; daylighting and energy efficient lighting systems (in 1996 typical lighting design loads for office buildings were 35 watts/m2; design targets are now 0.75 watts/m2); reduce and simplify HVAC systems; reduce pumps, fans and motors.

All of the above strategies have been tested and proven to work well across Canada. Applied carefully, they can yield 50 to 60% improvements in the energy performance of buildings as compared to MNECB. Applied to new buildings in Canada, achievable energy targets could yield up to 0.2MT in GHG savings per year, which compares well to our anticipated GHG growth rate of 9MT per year. Applied to all buildings in the country, the savings could be in the order of 25MT per year (after a reasonable period for renovations)–all this through operational energy reductions.

Additional unexplored territory in the White Paper involves the potential reduction in energy costs of building construction and demolition. We know that cement manufacture for concrete currently creates 53MT of GHGs in Canada; architects and engineers can reduce this by half by specifying 50% flyash content concrete. That would yield 26MT of GHG savings, at no cost, immediately. The potential GHG savings (and indoor air quality improvements) for the use of low embodied energy materials, low VOC finishes, rational materials purchasing and recyclable components and materials are harder to quantify. Perhaps the savings are in the order of 50MT per year.

Thinking ahead to the economical application of Photovoltaics (PVs), which are likely to be cost-effective in the next five years, the potential exists to develop buildings that are net energy neutral for operational consumption. Potential Kyoto impacts: 80MT per year. Looking at building production savings, perhaps we can achieve a 50% reduction, another 100MT per year.

The potential impact of architects and engineers learning and effecting sustainable design principles in their projects across the country is enormous. CBIP has shown how a little money can effect dramatic design changes that result in significant annual GHG savings on an ongoing basis. And there is clearly a demand for this type of information. In eight sessions delivered over the past seven months, the RAIC/National Practice Program-sponsored Sustainable Design for Canadian Buildings (SDCB) 101 course attracted 15% of all architects in Canada.

The federal government should stick to Canada’s Kyoto commitment. It should abandon the purchase option for GHG credits and look to Canadian industry to institute changes that will reduce the country’s GHG emissions and effect long-lasting economic efficiencies in every sector. The construction industry–Canada’s largest–has a lot to offer. We have the knowledge and technology to realize large GHG reductions–some 40% of what Canada needs in order to achieve Kyoto targets. Side benefits from this strategy are many: healthier buildings, reduced sick time, a cleaner atmosphere, exportable construction materials and more. This seems to make a lot more sense than spending $3 to $9 billion per year buying emissions credits. The federal government should follow the lead of European countries and front a fraction of that money to support sustainable design initiatives at home–now.

Peter Busby, FRAIC is a Vancouver-based architect and industrial designer and principal of Busby + Associates Architects. He is Chair of the Sustainable Building Canada Committee (SBCC), and can be reached at