With the economy severely battered by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the government of Canada is taking unprecedented action to support Canadian workers and businesses. As was the case after the 2008 financial crisis, the government will likely look towards infrastructure spending to fund shovel-ready projects.
To jump-start the economy, support Canadian workers (without running afoul of trade agreements), and align with climate goals, the government should apply upfront carbon caps on infrastructure projects. It’s a triple win.
The carbon caps – a total number of carbon emissions per project – would apply to the fuels and materials used to build infrastructure projects, including concrete, steel, aluminum, asphalt, timber, glass, diesel, and gasoline. These basic inputs to our nation-building are a long ignored and growing source of carbon pollution in construction – a problem the government cannot avoid if they want to achieve their goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Overhaul needed in the construction industry
Building up Canada is currently a dirty business. That needs to change. Manufacturing and transporting our construction materials requires a lot of energy and carbon. Even more carbon is emitted, typically using diesel fuel, to power heavy equipment at construction sites. Those emissions, which happen before the ribbon is cut and the lights turned on, are called upfront carbon emissions. They represent the bulk of total life-cycle embodied carbon of construction projects.
In 2018, the building sector and construction industry together represented 39 per cent of global emissions, according to the UN Environment Program. In Canada, carbon pollution from buildings account for nearly one quarter of emissions – and more if upfront carbon is included.
The past two decades have seen significant improvements in decarbonizing our electricity grid and increasing the operational energy efficiency of buildings, meaning we are emitting less carbon to heat, cool and power our buildings. The results have been impressive. New buildings today have an annual operating carbon footprint that is a fraction of buildings from a few decades ago. Nevertheless, there’s so much more potential to further drive down emissions by broadening our focus beyond annual energy efficiency by incorporating targets for the materials and processes used in construction.
Huge untapped potential for carbon reductions using local materials
Most people would probably be surprised to learn that current building codes, municipal green building policies and even leading voluntary green standards like LEED have largely ignored upfront carbon until very recently.
Since upfront carbon hasn’t yet been seriously targeted for reductions in Canada, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit. Upfront carbon is determined (and can be reduced) through procurement decisions, such as the type of material, material properties (recycled content), transportation distances and fuels used. One significant example can be found in Canada’s cement industry, where low-carbon and cost-neutral options abound but are largely ignored by designers and procurement officials who aren’t required or incentivized to select lower-carbon alternatives.
The Cement Association of Canada and its members have developed a low-carbon cement called Contempra (a limestone-rich cement that is cost and performance neutral from standard cement). They’ve spent years, and a small fortune, on its development and moving it through our complex codes and standards system but are still working hard to convince major buyers, particularly public procurement agents, to change their specifications. If standard cement was swapped out for Contempra, the result would be an immediate reduction in Canada’s emissions by over one megatonne of carbon dioxide annually, virtually for free. That’s roughly equivalent to one million round trip Toronto to Vancouver flights!
There are many other options available to reduce upfront carbon that are not currently being leveraged. Designers can prioritize materially efficient designs by avoiding over-engineering. Builders can maximize recycled content including cement alternatives (known in the industry as supplementary cementitious materials or SCMs). Developers could prioritize local suppliers to reduce transportation emissions. Transportation and construction equipment can be transitioned to electric.
How carbon caps could work
The Ministry of Infrastructure and Communities could place project-specific upfront carbon caps on each project receiving federal infrastructure funds, creating an incentive to use lower carbon materials and fuels. The bidding process could balance cost, time to execute, and carbon to ensure an effective infrastructure stimulus package that helps get shovels in the ground quickly, while fighting climate change and maximizing the number of local jobs supported. For enforcement, projects that come in under the carbon cap could be financially rewarded, and those that blow past their cap could pay a penalty. Both the caps and the financial implications could be linked to the government’s carbon reduction targets and carbon-pricing policy.
A range of market-ready tools and approaches already exist to support this effort. From life cycle assessment (LCA) software to environmental product declarations (EPDs). The design community is able to help drive down upfront carbon, but they need to be asked.
Governments around the world who have started to prioritize upfront carbon reductions have seen significant benefits. California has enacted Buy Clean legislation that requires the State to only purchase construction materials if they are low carbon. Other U.S. states, plus municipalities and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representative are drafting similar regulations. France has updated its building code. The Netherlands and most Nordic countries have updated their government procurement to incentivize low-carbon construction. Closer to home, Vancouver has set a target to reduce its construction-based embodied carbon by 40 per cent by 2030 and the federal government is starting to explore how future procurement might be revised to prioritize low-carbon materials.
Reducing upfront carbon encourages buying Canadian
Incentivizing lower upfront carbon materials encourages buying Canadian for two main reasons. First, it generally takes less carbon to get materials domestically than from international markets due to reduced transportation needs. Second – and often more importantly – Canadian materials are created using our relatively clean energy including low-carbon electricity. This means materials made here are typically lower carbon than materials made elsewhere. Placing an upfront carbon cap on infrastructure could, for example, shift the business case away from cheap but dirty Chinese steel towards slightly more expensive but much lower carbon steel from Hamilton, made using Ontario’s low-carbon electricity.
This policy shift would help support the market for Canada’s low-carbon construction materials while creating the conditions for competition among producers to find even lower-carbon production techniques. The policy would also support recent building code updates allowing for higher density timber construction and provide additional markets for Canada’s burgeoning mass-timber industry, adding additional markets for responsibly managed and harvested Canadian wood for construction. These Canadian ultra-low-carbon construction materials could be exported around the globe (using low-carbon fuels, of course) and make Canadian producers well positioned in the growing global cleantech market.
Reducing upfront carbon from infrastructure could deliver comprehensive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while supporting low-carbon Canadian suppliers. These actions are achievable in a short time frame (within the current government’s mandate) and can result in infrastructure that is aligned with government carbon targets while enhancing demand and creating a market for lower-carbon Canadian construction materials and fuels.
Preliminary discussions with government officials have been promising but the policy requires financial support to execute. Now is the time for Canada to put its infrastructure dollars to their best possible use and achieve a triple-win by creating much needed infrastructure while supporting local businesses and cutting carbon pollution. We can do it. Let’s get going!