How to phase out fossil fuels in buildings and lessons from New York

As architects and planners, we can help politicians with solid data and applicable policy to establish coherent action on the part of municipalities to make real progress in reducing carbon emissions.

Greta Thunberg often talks about how “our house is on fire” when referencing the global climate crisis and the precariousness of our planet. Taking inspiration from Thunberg, our firm, SvN, released a report in early 2022 entitled “The House is on Fire!” with the intent of bringing attention to the disconnect between the process of revising the City of Toronto’s Official Plan and embedding its many programs and initiatives that fight climate change into an urban planning framework. Our report identified five key areas that would inform the ongoing Municipal Comprehensive Review process and help transition Toronto’s Official Plan from a land-use to a zero-carbon focus. These five policy areas include: (1) accelerating the development of low-carbon buildings; (2) implementing the “4Rs” (reduce, reuse, recycle, retrofit); (3) enhancing the role of cities as a carbon sink; (4) building community resilience; and (5) advancing transportation goals. 

“The House is on Fire!” led us to establish a series of online conversations with thought leaders worldwide to help us understand how to achieve practical solutions at the municipal level to lower the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. Dubbed as “SvN Speaks”, our first episode occurred on June 1st between Lolita Jackson (former City of New York Special Advisor for Climate Policy & Programs) and David Miller (former Mayor of Toronto and currently the Managing Director of the C40 Centre for Urban Climate Policy and Economy).  The final two episodes air on Wednesday June 29 and Wednesday July 6 at 12 noon eastern time.

Our guests highlighted the critical role of cities in creating legislation to decarbonize our buildings effectively. Decarbonizing buildings is never easy–there are many political and economic roadblocks to progress. Jackson and Miller are veterans who understand and appreciate the need to bring about change and innovation and the pivotal roles that cities and, more specifically, city authorities play in decarbonizing buildings. Building operational emissions are responsible for approximately 28% of global CO2 emissions, which could rise to as much as 70% of a city’s carbon footprint, a figure reinforced by Jackson during our conversation. 

Jackson outlined a clear approach to reducing carbon emissions that includes: (1) analyzing and benchmarking emissions and emissions targets; (2) identifying where most significant impacts can be made; and (3) passing laws based on scientific evidence and data intent on achieving the greatest impact on reducing emissions. To Jackson, a data-driven policy is critical in gaining political support as it’s more tangible and preferable to feel-good ideas or “gut feeling.” In the case of New York City, after years of benchmarking carbon emissions, research indicated that a segment of commercial buildings amounting to a built inventory of around 14,000 buildings could make the most significant impact. From this reasoning, New York City’s Local Law 97 passed—a law limiting almost all buildings’ carbon emissions by targeting the highest polluters today, with increasingly stricter limits in 2030. The approach is simple: target the worst offenders and give others time to change.  

David Miller spoke about how cities need to creatively use their planning authority to keep their share of carbon emissions within the limits of a 1.5-degree temperature change. He points to Toronto, New York and Vancouver as having used that authority to implement stricter building performance standards that go well beyond their provincial or state requirements mandate without limiting development. Miller cited New York as a leader in addressing emissions associated with existing buildings. In contrast, other cities only have strategies or frameworks, even if some cities, like Melbourne, Australia, have enabled a collaborative initiative between energy providers and building operators. Such voluntary approaches to decarbonization leverage new or existing incentives to move beyond minimum requirements.   

In Canada, Miller commented on how “Our Federal government’s building code is advisory but nowhere near the level of leadership as in Vancouver, where it has adopted a very advanced building code studied by experts worldwide.” He also talked about Toronto’s Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) provides funding, expertise and support to improve the energy efficiency of Toronto’s residential, commercial, industrial and institutional buildings. To date, the BBP has facilitated over 2,600 projects, saving over 4.6 million MWh and eliminating 810,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.  

Unlike many developers in the private sector, cities own and operate several buildings for government offices, operations, or social housing. Jackson referenced the 400,000 New Yorkers who live in non-market housing. Retrofitting those buildings could make a significant impact on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Miller pointed out that long-term ownership–whether in the public or private sector–has advantages when it comes to realizing actual economic payback for decarbonizing these buildings from the perspective of carbon and operational costs. Still, the private sector understands costs better than anyone, and there are many taking the lead. Miller discusses companies like the pension-controlled Oxford Properties or BOMA, an association representing building and property managers, as positive examples of organizations that understand the immediate value of thinking about real estate through a post-carbon lens.  

Our cities need the power to make and finance to mandate lower carbon buildings. And clearly, our financial institutions need to move quickly on assessing and financing projects that meet our immediate and long-term climate objectives that will ultimately help eliminate the use of fossil fuels to heat and cool our buildings! 

As architects and planners, we can help politicians with solid data and applicable policy to establish coherent action on the part of municipalities to make real progress in reducing carbon emissions. Throughout Canada, it is still possible to build new buildings that use fossil fuels for heating, with very little being done to curb the use of natural gas as a primary heating source. Are there successful approaches and initiatives that we can derive inspiration to help us reduce, and ultimately eliminate, fossil fuels as a source of heat in our buildings? 

Throughout the summer, our firm’s ongoing SvN Speaks dialogue with other climate-positive thinkers will help clarify the necessary steps to build a post-carbon future. Future episodes will include linking design excellence to carbon-reducing principles, the principle of carbon sinks and carbon budgets, reducing overly prescriptive planning and design guidelines, and climate justice in urban planning. Reducing natural gas and other fossil fuel sources in our buildings is just one variable in the equation that will yield a future reality for our cities that emit far less greenhouse gas and help avert a climate catastrophe. We don’t want our house to be on fire any longer!  

You can watch the full conversation that aired June 1st on LinkedIn Live here. 

Aaron Budd is the Director of Regenerative Practice at SvN. This op-ed is part of an ongoing series of conversations between SvN, city building, and policy experts leading the way in helping the building industry achieve a net-zero future.