Viewpoint (January 01, 2003)

As this issue goes to press, federal Environment Minister David Anderson is in New York to deliver to the United Nations signed ratification documents committing Canada to the Kyoto accord on greenhouse gas reduction. Five years after the 1997 conference held in Kyoto, Japan, that initiated the protocol, Canada has become the 98th country to formally ratify the accord.

This is not to say that the rancorous debate over this country’s participation in the accord is over. Most provincial governments and many groups representing business and industry are intensely opposed to Kyoto, concerned that it will be disastrous for the Canadian economy. This will be particularly keenly felt, they argue, because the United States will not be subject to the same strictures as Canadian industry, providing our primary trading partner with a significant competitive advantage.

While this may be true for certain industries, Kyoto is likely to impact on different sectors in quite different ways. In an article that appears on page 14 of this issue, John McMinn reminds us that “Buildings, directly and indirectly, account for more than 40% of energy consumed in Canada.” In large measure this means the consumption of fossil fuels and the production of related emissions. Consequently, the construction industry–and by extension, the architecture and engineering professions–stand to be profoundly affected by Kyoto.

In his critique of the federal government’s Kyoto White Paper (see CA July 2002), Vancouver architect Peter Busby noted the conspicuous absence of any discussion of the role of the construction industry and its related professions in meeting Canada’s Kyoto targets. While provincial governments and business leaders focus on the accord’s putative negative effects on industry, the notion that by reducing the operational energy use of buildings by 25%–quite apart from improved manufacturing, transportation and construction practices–Canada could meet its Kyoto commitment by 2010 has been overlooked.

Although the construction industry accounts for 15 percent of gross domestic product and 48 percent of new investment in this country, the fact that it failed to rate a mention in Ottawa’s Kyoto White Paper serves as a reminder of how poorly understood is its role in our economy. This is likely due to its fragmentary and incremental nature, as opposed to more monolithic and politically organized industries like the energy and manufacturing sectors. The drive to achieve Kyoto greenhouse gas reduction targets provides architects and engineers with an unparalleled opportunity to bring the importance of our industry to public and government attention, placing it at the forefront of a potential economic revolution focused on innovative design and alternative energy sources.

Our professional associations have a key role to play in this regard, as innovation in design and construction practices will require the support of a sympathetic regulatory environment that facilitates and encourages the development of alternative solutions. If we are to meet our responsibilities under Kyoto, our associations will need to work with jurisdictional authorities to develop a more flexible regulatory framework that sees innovation, and not just risk management, as a primary responsibility of the construction sector.

The projects featured in this issue indicate that principles of green design are increasingly a part of the architectural mainstream. Canadian architects are well on their way to developing the expertise and experience needed to address the requirements of Kyoto. This is an opportunity to place our profession at the forefront of a movement with potentially profound environmental and social implications. It’s one we mustn’t squander.