Climate Hub Campaign to Reduce Emission from the Built Environment

On October 18th North Cowichan Council passed a building bylaw implementing Level EL4 of BC's Zero Carbon Step Code requiring all residential building permits, including up to 6 story apartments, to include fully electric space and water heating and cooling, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the municipality. Thank-you North Cowichan! The Climate Hub's delegation on BC's Zero Carbon Step Code to the CVRD's Electoral Area Services Committee is on November 15th.

Buildings in cities and town in North America and around the globe generate about 40% of those cities and towns annual CO2 and CH4 (methane) emissions, the main drivers of climate disruption. Most of those emissions currenly come from space and water heating using fossil gas, as well as from gas stoves and fireplaces. Right now, the use of fossil (methane) gas, euphemistically called “natural gas,” by companies like Fortis, has continued to expand in new construction in our province and local communities. Fortis calls gas a “transition fuel”. It’s not. Methane is 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than C02 across a 20‐year period, which is the urgent window of time in which we most need to be reducing emissions. Data on the prevalence of gas leaks now shows that, due to those leaks, gas is at least as damaging to climate stability as emissions from burning coal. 

Health studies beginning in the 1970s, and published peer reviewed studies since then, show even stronger evidence linking gas use in homes with the increased incidence of asthma and respiratory infections, especially in children. The most recent health studies now also show significant increased risk of childhood leukemia, in addition to respiratory illness, from methane gas in the home.

And then there's the climate risk. Reducing methane emissions is critical as methane has the most severe and immediate climate impact of any fossil fuel, driving temperatures higher faster here and around the globe, accelerating the damaging and dislocating climate impacts we’re experiencing in our communities, and on our health and wellbeing. Electrification is the clean, healthy, and economic alternative to fossil gas in buildings. With the accelerating pace and intensity of climate impacts and the documented health risks of gas, it’s time for local governments to support our communities in switching away from gas, starting with new construction using BC Zero Carbon Step Code.

The BC government has now given local governments the tools to decarbonize and electrify new buildings. BC’s Zero Carbon Step Code, which came into force on May 1, 2023, enables local governments to pass bylaws that require lower emissions, up to full electrification in new buildings. On Vancouver Island the  Cities of Nanaimo and Victoria, and the District Municipality of Saanich, and now the Municipality of North Cowichan, have adopted Zero Carbon bylaws at level EL4 of the Zero Carbon Step Code for new buildings. In Victoria the highest step of the Zero Carbon Step Code was implemented as of July 1, 2023, with all building permits submitted for Residential (Group C ‐ up to 6 stories) needing to meet both Energy Step Code 3 and Zero Emission Step Code 4 (full electrification), and as of November 1, 2023, for all building permits submitted for residential buildings over 6 stories and commercial buildings (Group D and E).

Saanich has put in place the same dates and requirements as Victoria. The implementation dates for zero carbon building permits under Zero Carbon bylaws in both Nanaimo and North Cowichan are July 1, 2024. The Code does allow a wood stove or gas fireplace for backup use during power outages. An added benefit of full electrification is that heat pumps provide both heating and cooling, something that fossil gas can’t provide. This is so important as, year after year, we’re experiencing longer and hotter heat waves which bring increasingly life‐threatening health risks.

(Photo: National Observer: “Heat Pumps Can and Should be the New AC”)

Having municipalities here on the Island who’ve already applied zero carbon bylaws to new construction gives momentum to other local governments like ours to implement similar bylaws. It also means Nanaimo, Victoria, and Saanich, are now sources of advice and support for our five local governments here in the Cowichan Valley as they implement these bylaws and engage in dialogue with contractors and builders, many of whom are the same contractors who build both here and in the south and mid‐Island communities where zero‐carbon bylaws are already in place. The Cowichan Climate Hub, a collaboration of local social benefit and environmental non-profits, that includes One Cowichan, as well as faith groups, farmers, fishers, co-ops and small businesses, will be presenting delegations to the CVRD, the City of Duncan, and the Towns of Ladysmith and Lake Cowichan to encourage them to do the same. 

Every home built under zero carbon bylaws will not only reduce emissions in the year it is built, but for every year of its life. Each year into the future there will be more low carbon houses and apartments in our local communities with healthier indoor air and minimal greenhouse gas emissions. 

Retrofitting existing buildings to eliminate fossil fuels will also be 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 our local governments to prioritize climate retrofit programs that supplement existing federal and provincial supports (and encourage senior governments to expand those supports) 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, these environmental building retrofits will reduce emissions further, in ways that both local governments and the Province need to do in order to meet their 2030 climate commitments.

Retrofits will very likely be more expensive than new construction, so the sooner new construction is required to be Zero Carbon the more money individual families and local government will save, the healthier we will be, and the more impact we will have as we do our part to reduce emissions and slow the damage caused by this accelerating climate emergency. Everything we do to reduce emissions locally, provincially, federally, and globally matters.

In BC and across Canada we've experienced large active wildfires from this spring through the summer and into the fall, displacing communities and destroying ecosystems. Indigenous communities continue to be disproportionately affected. Smoke‐filled skies enveloped cities and towns across the continent. Hot weather and lack of rain dried our forests and soils increasing fire risk, challenging farmers’ ability to grow food, and causing low flows in watersheds like the Cowichan and Koksilah – with low enough and warm enough waters that salmon and other aquatic life were under stress for many months. Although the rains have come, these low flow/drought cycles will almost certainly return.

Meanwhile, tornados, heavy rains, and flash floods destroyed roads, homes, and infrastructure in many communities. Moving into the impacts of El Nino this winter, predicted to be the fourth super‐El Nino in 40 years, we’ll see more extreme weather around the globe accompanied by a projected monster 3.2C increased temperature anomaly. It is a good time to do whatever we can locally to build our communities' resilience in the face of our changing climate.