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After BC’s historic heatwave, Canada should double down on building retrofits

Investing in deep energy retrofits will lower emissions, increase our resiliency to heatwaves, and create thousands of jobs


This week’s heatwave in western Canada is an unfortunate reminder that as the end of the COVID-19 pandemic nears, the climate crisis is only growing in intensity. Image from Shutterstock.

During a June 29 press conference on British Columbia’s reopening plans, Premier John Horgan was asked why more wasn’t done to warn the public about the record-breaking heatwaves currently sweeping western Canada.

In a remarkable show of disrespect, Horgan defended his government’s handling of the crisis:

[…] fatalities are a part of life […] The public was acutely aware that we had a heat problem, and we were doing our best to break through all of the other noise to encourage people to take steps to protect themselves, but it was apparent to anyone who walked outdoors that we were in an unprecedented heatwave and again there’s a level of personal responsibility […] I believe we did what we could to get information out.

At the time of writing, the BC Coroners Service has reported at least 486 sudden deaths over five days during the province’s current heatwave, a number that’s expected to climb as first responders work through a backlog of calls.

Most of the victims who died from heat exposure were seniors found alone in unventilated suites, as most British Columbians live without air conditioning (daily temperatures typically hover around the mid-20s in the hottest summer months).

Responding to the premier’s press conference, Liberal MLA and Public Safety critic Mike Morris described Horgan’s comments as “pretty callous.”

Indeed, the premier’s aloof reply attempted to absolve his government of responsibility, but it also ignored a crucial element of this unfolding tragedy: in a world of supercharged climate change where heat waves are the ‘new normal,’ provincial authorities will need to act quickly to upgrade homes—especially rental apartments and condominiums—to mitigate the impacts of warming and improve public health.

In a 2011 report, the Canadian Environmental Law Association argued for “healthy retrofits” to improve occupant health, referencing a phenomenon in the United Kingdom known as “excess winter mortality.” This refers to instances of residents in older, poorly insulated and heated homes dying in incidences of cold-related deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

In Canada, summers are getting hotter, and with temperatures eclipsing the 40s in many parts of BC and other provinces, homes are becoming unsafe places to be.

From June 30 to July 8, 2018, 66 people died of extreme heat in Montreal. Likewise in England, public health authorities reported almost 900 deaths in 2019 from heatwaves, and more than 3,400 in combination with the three previous years.

This week’s heatwave in western Canada is an unfortunate reminder that as the end of the COVID-19 pandemic nears, the climate crisis is only growing in intensity.

One distinct similarity between the two crises is the pattern of neglect towards seniors and the disabled. Among those 66 deaths in Montreal in 2018, 72 percent suffered from chronic illnesses and 66 percent were over the age of 65.

Early into the pandemic, Canada watched in horror as seniors died in droves in long-term care facilities. According to research by freelance journalist Nora Loreto, at least 17,745 people died in residential care over the last 15 months.

Many of the same people who suffered and died during the pandemic, particularly seniors and those with disabilities, are now facing the grim reality of a warming planet.

As with any public health crisis, certain groups are impacted disproportionately by extreme weather events such as heatwaves. The Tyee recently reported on how inequality impacts the accessibility of green spaces in Vancouver. According to a map produced by Vancouver’s Urban Forest Strategy, poorer areas such as the Downtown Eastside and Marpole experience some of the worst heat in the city.

The difference is so drastic that the average temperature between streetscapes can vary by more than 20 degrees in the summer. Perhaps predictably, the same communities suffering from wealth inequality and hotter temperatures were the most impacted by the pandemic.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is one of the hottest neighbourhoods in the city due to its lack of green space and abundance of pavement. Map from Urban Forest Strategy, 2018 update, City of Vancouver.

While Canada must drastically lower its greenhouse gas emissions beyond its Paris Agreement commitments and rapidly scale back the extraction of oil and gas, future heatwaves are already ‘locked in,’ so major investments in adaptation measures to address the “resilience deficit” will be needed to stave off the social, economic and environmental costs of a rapidly warming climate.

One effective way for Canadian cities to prepare for the climate-related impacts to come is by spending big on building upgrades. Deep energy retrofits are worthwhile investments for a post-COVID green recovery because they create many local jobs, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and improve heat regulation in homes.

An analysis by the Canada Green Building Council estimated jobs in BC’s green building sector could increase from 72,000 today to nearly 120,000 in a year and 180,000 by 2030. Canada-wide, green building jobs could increase from half a million today to 800,000 in a year and 1.5 million by 2030.

Similarly, in a recent webinar hosted by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, Director of Buildings and Urban Solutions at the Pembina Institute, said the drive to retrofit older rental stock in Canada could create upwards of 200,000 jobs per year and lead to a $40 billion GDP increase.

Green building direct jobs and GDP forecast by scenario, British Columbia, 2030. Image courtesy Canada Green Building Council, “Market Impact and Opportunities in a Critical Decade.”

To meet its current climate targets, Canada must lower its emissions from 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (Mt CO2e) to 511 by 2030. Buildings make up 91 of those 730 Mt CO2e (12 percent) and this number has been increasing.

Dramatically lowering emissions in all sectors of our society is critically urgent if we are to prevent hotter and deadlier heatwaves. Deep energy retrofits can play a critical role for the economy and the climate.

The Canada Green Building Council estimates that building-related GHG emissions could be cut in half by 2030. In their modelling of Toronto homes, Ryerson University researchers found that deep energy retrofits could lower heating and cooling intensity in homes from 204 kWh/m2 to as low as 25 kWh/m2.

Deep energy retrofits refer to far more than air conditioner installations, and encompass the complete overhaul of the building envelope. Instead of trying to put energy-intensive air conditioning units in every home (which would significantly increase our GHG emissions) well-designed retrofits involve replacing windows and doors, adding insulation, and installing fans and heat pumps to make homes more livable while saving the average household hundreds of dollars per year.

According to researchers at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, Nova Scotia’s retrofit program “generates about $1.60 to $5.10 in benefits for each dollar spent… over 25 years. Put a little differently, the benefits from energy savings and from reducing greenhouse gas emissions are two to five times greater than the program cost.”

The Energiesprong model developed in the Netherlands has become a global best practice in deep energy retrofits. Using a process of photogrammetry for precise measurements, building envelope panelization, and offsite industrial prefabrication, project managers have been able to reduce installation time to less than one week (residents don’t even have to leave their homes). Most homes retrofitted using the Energiesprong approach reach net-zero energy level, meaning the house produces more energy than it uses.

Like the Dutch, we can focus on social housing as a secure first market for deep energy retrofits. The Pembina Institute estimates 138,000 jobs could be created by retrofitting 600,000 dwellings a year. For reference, Canada’s current social housing stock consists of 629,000 dwellings.

A major barrier to such a program in Canada is market creation. Crown corporations are the most significant market intervention tool governments can use. A crown corporation dedicated to the deep energy retrofitting of Canada’s building stock could ensure well-paid, unionized job creation all across the country, and that homes are retrofitted to measurable performance targets.

Coming out of the pandemic, massive government expenditures are expected to reboot economies. Investing in deep energy retrofits will lower our emissions, increase our resiliency to heatwaves, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. This is a viable, and necessary, pathway for us to ‘build back better.’

Raidin Blue is a master of environmental studies student at York University studying climate and energy policy. He is currently located in unceded Okanagan territory.


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