Tools for Our Local Governments to Decarbonize New Buildings and Improve Our Lives: BC’s New Zero Carbon Step Code

Buildings in North America and around the globe generate about 40% of annual CO2 and CH4 (methane) emissions – the main drivers of climate disruption  - with most emissions coming from space and water heating using fossil gas and oil, as well as from gas stoves and fireplaces. Right now, the use of fossil (methane) gas continues to expand in new construction in our province and our community. Fortis, BC’s gas corporation, continues to euphemistically call methane “natural gas,” a marketing ploy adopted in the 19th century, and to call gas a “transition fuel”, when we know that gas leaks make it as damaging as coal. There is increasing evidence that fossil gas leaks in homes - and new evidence of how unhealthy living in buildings using gas is, especially for children. 

Electrification is the clean, accessible, and economical alternative to fossil gas in buildings. Given the accelerating pace and intensity of climate impacts, and that we now know there’s an increased risks of childhood asthma and leukaemia from methane gas in the home, it’s time for local governments to support our communities in making the switch away from gas, starting with new construction. 

The good news is the BC government has now given local governments the tools they need to require the decarbonization and electrification of new buildings – the Zero Carbon Step Code, which came into force on May 1, 2023, and enables local governments to pass bylaws that require lower emissions, right up to full electrification, in new buildings. Here on Vancouver Island the City of Victoria and the District Municipality of Saanich have already adopted Zero Carbon bylaws at level 4 of the new Zero Carbon Code for new buildings. 

In Victoria the highest step of the Zero Carbon Step Code is being implemented during 2023 and 2024, with all building permits submitted for Residential (Group C - up to 6 stories) on or after July 1, 2023, needing to meet both Energy Step Code 3 and Zero Emission Step Code 4 (all electrification). Building permits submitted for residential buildings over 6 stories and commercial buildings (Group D and E) on or after November 1 need to meet these same Zero Carbon requirements. Saanich has put in place the same dates and requirements as Victoria for building permit applications for all Group C residential buildings to meet level 4 of the Zero Carbon Code. Specifying EL4 in the bylaw is necessary to achieve the needed full electrification and decarbonization. The Code allows energy-efficient wood stoves and gas fireplaces for backup use during power outages.

An added benefit of all electrification is that heat exchangers/pumps provide both heating and cooling, something that fossil gas can’t provide – so important as we experience longer and hotter heat waves with increasing health risks. 

Having municipalities right here on the Island that have already applied zero carbon bylaws to new construction gives momentum to other local governments like ours to implement similar bylaws. It also means both Victoria and Saanich are now great sources of advice and support for our five local governments here in the Cowichan Valley as they engage in dialogue with contractors and builders here to move forward on decarbonizing the built environment.

Retrofitting existing buildings to eliminate fossil fuels is also needed from a health and safety perspective, as extreme heat waves become more common and more intense. Repeated high temperature events like the 2021 BC Heat Dome must not be allowed to take the tragic death toll we saw that June, with over 600 deaths in BC. We need local governments to prioritize programs that supplement existing federal and provincial support, to get heat pumps, with their ability to provide effective cooling as well as heating, into the rental homes and apartments of our most vulnerable and economically-challenged community members. More broadly, building retrofits to reduce emissions will also be needed to meet the Province’s 2030 climate commitments.

Retrofits will almost certainly be more expensive than new construction, so the sooner we move to requiring new buildings to be Zero Carbon the more money we will save, the healthier we will be, and more impact we will have on reducing emissions and slowing the damage caused by this accelerating climate emergency.

Here in BC and across Canada we continue to see large active wildfires, displacing communities and destroying ecosystems. Indigenous communities are being disproportionately affected. Smoke-filled skies have enveloped cities and towns across the continent. Hot weather and lack of rain have dried our forests and soils increasing fire risk, challenging farmers’ ability to grow food, and causing watersheds like the Cowichan and Koksilah to have flows low enough and waters warming enough that salmon and other aquatic life are under stress right now. Meanwhile, in other communities tornados, heavy rains, and flash floods are destroying roads, homes, and infrastructure. 

Eighty percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the last decade come from the extraction, transportation and burning of gas and oil. Methane emissions are over 80 times more potent than CO2 across a 20-year period, and thus have the most severe and immediate climate impact, worse that coal, driving temperatures higher faster here and around the globe and accelerating the damaging and dislocating climate impacts we’re experiencing in our lives, our communities, as well as on our health and wellbeing. It’s time to act, and we’re excited to know that local governments now have the tools and the ability to make a big difference in a major area – building emissions.

Sept 1st UPDATE: Earlier this week Nanaimo City Council voted to expedite their timeline to implement BC's Zero Carbon Step Code and BC Energy Step Code, asking staff to draft a bylaw amendment that will require new buildings to meet the Zero Carbon Performance Level (EL-4) of the provincial Zero Carbon Step Code by July 1, 2024, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new buildings. More inspiration for Cowichan Valley local governments to follow suit and join the momentum to reduce emissions from the built environment on Vancouver Island!

One Cowichan, along with our local Cowichan Climate Hub partners groups, plan to engage with local governments about decarbonizing and electrifying the built environment in the Cowichan Valley over the next months. Let us know if you’d like to get involved by contacting us at [email protected]