Municipalities across B.C. wanting more control over the pollution produced by new buildings are set to receive more authority through a long-awaited standard.
The province confirmed that the Zero Carbon Step Code, originally called the Carbon Pollution Standard, will be added to the BC Building Code on May 1.
The voluntary standard allows local governments to directly limit the carbon emissions that new buildings can produce. The new policy comes after an energy step code was added to the building code in 2017, allowing municipalities to create energy-efficiency mandates.
However, that approach was not as ambitious as current timelines and the province said the original step code didn’t directly address greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because its focus on energy efficiency meant new construction could still use fossil fuel systems.
“Since natural gas is still a dominant, low-cost energy source for buildings, efficiency requirements alone are not enough to meet our climate targets,” the province’s CleanBC roadmap states.
More stringent requirements are coming in 2024 and 2027, the province said, before it eventually will require all new buildings to be zero carbon by 2030.
“It’s long overdue,” Victoria Coun. Dave Thompson said of the Zero Carbon standard.
The capital city and its neighbour Saanich have been waiting for the standard so their own expedited zero-carbon building mandates could come into effect. While both communities will require all new builds to be emissions-free by 2025, Victoria could be moving the dial even sooner.
Thompson is part of a councillor contingent poised to propose that the city require new homes and smaller residential buildings to be zero carbon by this fall, while buildings four storeys and up, plus commercial ones, would have to start meeting that standard in the second half of 2024 if the faster timeline is adopted.
“It’s a climate emergency and our view is that we need to be taking action accordingly,” Thompson said. “I do think the province should look at accelerating it across the board.”
That sentiment is shared by the Zero Emissions Building Exchange (ZEBx), an industry hub that looks to strengthen public, private and civic capacities for zero-emission buildings in Vancouver and B.C.
“It is without a doubt, more than possible to require almost all new buildings to meet the highest level of the Zero Carbon Step Code today,” ZEBx director Roberto Pecora said.
The big question, Pecora said, is whether new buildings can go pollution-free without significantly increasing construction costs. ZEBx has highlighted several examples that were able to meet both climate and cost demands. Pecora said if that trend continues, more climate-friendly and all-electric buildings will be able to be constructed for less than what it would’ve cost had gas-fired equipment been used.
ZEBx case studies have shown how all-electric buildings also helped with affordability. One study highlights a Pemberton housing project where each unit’s annual costs didn’t exceed $50 for heating, $124 for hot water and $30 for cooling – despite temperatures hitting 46C that summer.
“The main benefit to building all-electric buildings is that it can cost less to build than a code-minimum building with gas-fired equipment that contributes to climate change,” Pecora said. “More importantly though, it benefits future generations.
Several South Island and Lower Mainland communities have already committed to beating the 2030 timeline and a common theme among them is natural gas being responsible for more emissions than other fuel types. The use of natural gas for heat and hot water in all buildings makes up just over half of Victoria’s overall emissions and Pecora notes that rises to 57 per cent in Vancouver’s pollution breakdown.
For smaller residential buildings – known as Part 9 structures in the Building Code – the Zero Carbon Step Code will apply to primary heating, cooling, hot water and ventilation systems, but gas will still be allowed for uses like cooktops, dryers and fireplaces.
Part 3 buildings – ones generally four storeys and above – will also still be able to use gas for certain elements if they meet emission limits.
“It is up to the project team to determine how best to comply with the requirements and whether specific equipment like gas heating or cooking equipment is able to be included in the building’s design,” a housing ministry spokesperson said.
The province also said renewable natural gas won’t be in compliance with the step code.
Pecora said an impressive array of high-efficiency equipment that allows buildings to go fully electric is currently available in B.C. That includes heat pumps for buildings big and small, plus electric fireplaces and induction cooktops that don’t come with the indoor air quality issues associated with gas ranges, he said.
While it takes more planning and a concerted design effort, Pecora said zero carbon building in B.C.’s North is possible as there’s a growing selection of heat pumps in the province that are capable of pulling warmth from very cold temperatures.
“If all-electric homes are being built in the North, there’s really no excuse for the rest of B.C. not to follow suit.”
A BC Hydro spokesperson said it’s been working with the province, municipalities and builders to prepare for a smooth roll-out of the Zero Carbon Step Code. The Crown corporation said it will be increasing its investments in electrical capacity upgrades, updating infrastructure planning criteria and advancing major underground projects to prepare for higher levels of demand in new fully electric buildings.
Additionally, the power provider said it has a flexible resource plan that identifies a number of ways to meet the demand for clean electricity, if needed.
“B.C. also has a large volume of potential new renewable energy resources that could be deployed to meet the need, including wind and solar projects, among other resources,” BC Hydro said.