Tougher rules on greenhouse gas emissions for new buildings will kick in on May 1 in Toronto as part of the city's battle against climate change.
Under the changes to the Toronto Green Standard (TGS) — the city's sustainable design requirements — city-owned buildings will face a higher environmental standard than privately-owned structures.
"It's certainly a challenge, but I think it's absolutely necessary," said Marianne Touchie, a building science professor at the University Toronto.
"I think the tiered approach is the right way to go."
Energy use in buildings accounts for more than half of Toronto's greenhouse gas output, making them the city's largest single source of emissions, according to the City of Toronto's website. Under the new standards, all new city owned buildings will have to meet a net zero emissions target. The city will offer financial incentives to encourage privately owned buildings to meet similar standards voluntarily.
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The city hopes the changes will push developers to move away from power sources like natural gas and toward more green options like solar power, as well as more efficient heating and cooling systems. All new buildings will now face requirements like tougher emission standards, facilities for electric vehicles and more green features like grass and trees. The rules are part of Toronto's goal of becoming a net-zero city by 2040.
In Scarborough, one city-owned building is ahead of the game in meeting the new rules.
Construction began last week on the North East Scarborough Community Recreation & Child Care Centre. When it opens in 2024 it's expected to be the city's first net-zero community centre.
The idea is to offset, or "net-to-zero," the climate impacts of a project, says Zeina Elali, the senior sustainability adviser with Perkins&Will, the firm the designed the building. That means if something in the structure does produce greenhouse gas emissions, the builder will need to do something else to counter it.
To be truly a sustainable building, it is important to consider both "operational carbon" — the emissions needed to heat a building and keep it operating — and "embodied carbon" — the amount of energy used in construction and the materials the building is made of, she says.
Elali says that's exactly what this project is doing: considering operational carbon but also factoring in embodied carbon — something all city-owned projects will need to account for in this next phase of the Toronto Green Standard.
Perkins&Will was already exploring working in this way but putting it into the Toronto Green Standard is creating a catalyst for the development and construction industry, says Elali.
"It's forcing companies to finally pick up the right skill sets," she said.
"If they wish to keep engaging with the City of Toronto projects, they have to learn how to quantify embodied carbon, they have to learn how to decarbonize the operations of buildings. I don't think that there's going to be a choice anymore."
The new community centre, located near Rouge National Urban Park will make considerable use of renewable energy sources like solar panels. The city says the building will also have special pumps that use the outdoor air to both heat and cool it and air handling units that will improve heat recovery efficiency by 85 per cent.
Will financial incentives work?
Toronto's local government is trying to lead by example, says Lisa King, a senior policy planner for the city
"We've had the bar set higher for all city buildings to show leadership and demonstrate that this can be done," she told CBC News.
Mike Singleton, executive director of Sustainable Buildings Canada, calls it one of the most progressive standards in North America and says it has "created a sort of a pathway to high performance," while leaving some flexibility.
But some experts doubt whether voluntary financial incentives are enough to get the private sector onboard fast enough.
"I think the profit motive is still stronger than the need to create a sustainable world," said Ted Kesik, a building science professor at the University of Toronto. He says the city has faced a similar problem trying to entice owners to retrofit older buildings.
Kesik also says the Toronto Green Standard lacks the legal teeth of the Ontario Building Code, adding that since the city's standard's are higher than the province's, encouraging people to meet a higher threshold will be difficult.
Figures from the city would appear to back up Kesik's assertion. As of 2021, more than 2,500 development projects were required to meet the city's minimum sustainability standards. Only 150 of those projects participated in a program that offers financial incentives to meet a higher threshold.
"There's people who are still wanting to exploit nature and to do so at the cost of the environment in order to become wealthy. And that motivation is still stronger than the motivation to do the right thing," he said.