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Vancouver Releases Plan to Reduce Embodied Emissions by 40%

To date, more than 1,700 jurisdictions have declared a climate emergency. Vancouver has long been a global climate leader, adopting innovative policies and taking strong action to enable a more sustainable lifestyle. Vancouver declared a climate emergency in January 2019 and developed its Climate Emergency Response report, which was approved by the City Council in April 2019. In this report, the City set a target of being carbon neutral before 2050, accelerating the City’s previous climate efforts and adding six major new objectives for the next decade. These objectives, referred to as “Big Moves”, aim to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 (Figure 1). Vancouver’s targets are aligned with the Paris Agreement, which is based on the recommendations of the 2019 Special Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC report urges limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels to minimize climate change’s most catastrophic impacts. The science tells us that net global emissions should drop by 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 to achieve this target.

Climate Emergency Action Plan Steps

Figure 1: The City of Vancouver Climate Emergency Response six Big Moves (Graphic: City of Vancouver (2020), Climate Emergency Action Plan)

On November 17, 2020, Vancouver City Council approved the Climate Emergency Action Plan. The Plan focuses on reducing local carbon emissions from transportation and buildings while also prioritizing actions to remove carbon from the atmosphere

To reduce transportation emissions, the Plan sets the following targets for 2030:

  • 90% of  Vancouver citizens will live within an easy walk or roll of their daily needs
  • Two-thirds of trips will be by active transportation and transit 
  • Half the kilometers driven on Vancouver’s roads will be by zero-emissions vehicles

In addressing the emissions from buildings, the City aims to cut the carbon pollution from the operation of new and existing buildings in half by 2030, compared to 2007. This goal is achieved mainly by increasing buildings’ energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy. 

These goals all represent a welcome next step and ratcheting-up of recognizable policies being adopted across North America. The Plan takes a major step further and makes Vancouver a clear climate leader in North America by setting a roadmap for reducing embodied carbon emissions associated with the construction of new buildings. Appendix K of the Plan lays down the City’s steps to reduce these often overlooked emissions by 40% by 2030. 

Embodied Carbon of New Construction in Vancouver Graph

Figure 2: The modelled city-wide embodied carbon reductions under varying scenarios shows the range of emissions reduction resulting from the initiatives proposed in the Embodied Carbon Strategy (Graphic: City of Vancouver (2020), Climate Emergency Action Plan, Appendix K)

Embodied emissions from the construction sector are estimated to account for roughly 11% of global carbon emissions annually. Building operational emissions account for approximately three times the emissions but are dropping due to increasingly aggressive energy efficiency policies and regulations associated with new construction. As operational emissions fall, embodied emissions are becoming increasingly significant. Moreover, operational emissions are released throughout a building’s lifetime, bit by bit, with every energy bill. Embodied emissions are emitted before buildings are occupied, during the manufacture of the building materials. Therefore, tackling embodied emissions can deliver significant emission reductions in the short term and must become an immediate priority to minimize climate change and achieve our Paris targets (Figure 3). 

Graph showing that while operational emissions happen over time, embodied emissions largely happen today

Figure 3: Addressing embodied emissions of buildings can be critical in our success in battling climate change in the short term, as the majority of these emissions are released prior to building occupancy. In contrast, operational emissions are released throughout buildings lifetime (Graphic: City of Vancouver (2020), Climate Emergency Action Plan, Appendix K)

Vancouver’s Embodied Carbon Strategy is unprecedented among North American municipalities and one of the pioneering policies worldwide. The City has been one of the continent’s leaders on the issue since they introduced their Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings in 2017, which required the calculation and disclosure of the embodied emissions as part of a project’s rezoning permit process. By building on that success and adding reduction requirements, Vancouver estimates it can prevent up to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. 

The City has categorized the planned actions to achieve its embodied emissions reduction targets into four key groups: change the rules (policy and regulation), change the market (remove barriers and provide incentives), change the culture (capacity building and industry transformation), change the context (complementary strategies and actions). These actions have incorporated learning from previous plans, especially the Zero Emissions Building Plan, which can reinforce their success.

Change the Rules:

The City will introduce policies and regulations requiring new buildings to demonstrate the use of practices that lower carbon pollution. The components of the actions are:

  • Establish standardized baselines to measure reductions for developments and the city.
  • Require rezoning reduction targets through updates to the Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings. This policy applies to more than half of the new floor area built in the city per year and developments that are typically more sophisticated. Learning from the projects applying for rezoning will then be used to update the building code by approximately five years delay. This delay gives the broader industry the time needed to ramp up and become comfortable with these new requirements.
  • Require Vancouver Building By-law reduction targets and low-carbon code requirements, following the steps in the Green Buildings Policy for Rezonings.
  • Target deep reduction in embodied emissions for City-owned buildings and infrastructure as part of the City’s Green Operations Plan.

The estimated timeline for the above policy and regulatory changes is as follows:

  • 2021/22: The first reduction target(s) is introduced in the rezoning plan.
  • 2023: Possible first embodied carbon requirements are added to the Building By-law.
  • 2025/26: The rezoning policy targets are updated & 2021/22 rezoning targets are possibly adopted into the code.
  • 2030: 2025/26 rezoning targets are adopted into the code & higher targets are set for the rezoning policy to move towards net-zero emissions.

Change the Market: 

The City will work with partners and stakeholders to identify and remove barriers and create incentives to use low-carbon construction materials and practices.

  • Remove barriers in planning and building by-laws, policies, guidelines, and bulletins
  • Incentivize deep embodied carbon reductions in building design and construction

Change the Culture:

Coordinate, support, advocate knowledge and tool creation and sharing to build institutional capacity and momentum, and expand the initiative’s impact. 

  • Coordinate, support, advocate, and share knowledge with external organizations and other governments
  • Support databases, tools, practice guides, training, and knowledge-sharing networks

Change the Context:

Connect this Strategy with other City initiatives and plans to change the broader context that shapes how buildings are designed and built, achieving synergies and co-benefits. These strategies and plans include green operations, the Vancouver Plan, parking plan, equity framework, green economy, zero waste, community planning, transportation, and resilience.

  • Plan for low-carbon neighborhoods
  • Optimize parking requirements
  • Support zero emissions construction sites
  • Support zero waste and deconstruction
  • Support seismic resilience
  • Support the green building economy

Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan begins the work of operationalizing the bold targets the City has set. Vancouver-based building developers, designers, and construction material manufacturers should all be following these developments closely as they have the potential to impact your procurement and construction plans. Other jurisdictions are watching Vancouver closely, so expect similar plans to start popping up across North America.

Mantle looks forward to contributing to the success of this plan and sharing the lessons learned broadly across both public and private sector actors aiming for climate leadership. Contact us if you’d like to discuss adopting some of these leading strategies in your next construction policy or development. 

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