The B.C. government is under new management. On Premier David Eby’s shortlist of priorities is the need to signal to the droves of climate voters who recently signed up to his party that he will take climate action seriously. One bold step the premier should immediately take is to follow Washington state’s lead by announcing that new buildings will no longer be powered by fossil fuels.
Pollution caused by gas piped into buildings is the third largest source of carbon emissions in B.C. Decades of industry marketing have branded gas as “natural” and “clean” – but in reality, it’s made up mainly of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes 86 times as much warming as carbon dioxide over its shorter 20 year lifetime.
With B.C.’s abundant supply of clean electricity, heating our buildings with renewable energy should be an obvious choice for a government that aspires to climate leadership. But last year, Fortis hooked up more than 10,000 new customers to polluting fossil gas lines. Every new building that relies on gas for heating or cooking locks in decades of dangerous emissions.
There is also growing consensus among health professionals that pumping gas into the buildings where we live and work is a significant health risk. Burning gas indoors releases toxic chemicals including nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide.
Many people are shocked to learn that living in a home with a gas stove increases a child’s risk of asthma similar to living with a cigarette smoker. All-electric buildings eliminate these health concerns, and installing heat pumps instead of gas furnaces offers the added benefit of keeping people cool and safe during increasingly dangerous extreme heat events.
The government is relying on emissions cuts from buildings and communities to do a lot of the heavy lifting to meet B.C.’s climate goals, but its current approach isn’t working. The province’s recently released climate accountability report projects that B.C. will miss its 2030 target for buildings and communities by at least 35 per cent. As the province works to mitigate the housing crisis, we can and must ensure that our climate and housing goals go hand-in-hand.
It is currently up to individual municipalities to determine how to cut building emissions. Some have taken great strides. Some have found their jurisdictional authority limits their ability to require that new buildings be all-electric. Some are not interested
The result is a patchwork of standards across the province that is confusing and unduly complicated for builders – and will not bring about the pace and scale of change that is needed.
An update to B.C.’s building code is coming soon that intends to be part of the solution. However, municipalities will choose whether to opt in to the new carbon pollution standard – or not – and full implementation is not expected until 2030.
Municipalities will also decide what counts as low-carbon energy, leaving the door wide open for Fortis to continue to exploit loopholes and lobby aggressively for false solutions like “renewable” natural gas.
Fortis wants to label fossil gas as renewable by “offsetting” its emissions in another jurisdiction – meaning it could pay an American farmer to harness methane from cattle and then label the fracked gas piped into new buildings in B.C. “renewable.” This is another marketing ploy, intended to keep companies like Fortis in business as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.
If we continue down the current path, the number of buildings that must be renovated down the line will only grow, at much greater cost and with much greater disruption to residents than keeping them fossil fuel free in the first place. And emissions will keep rising, alongside ever more deadly climate disasters like floods, fires and heatwaves.
Unlike many jurisdictions, we have clean electricity. Unlike other sectors, the technology for clean buildings is available now and is cost competitive. The recent provincial budget surplus shows we have the money to ramp up any training or infrastructure support needed.
What we need now is a clear, province-wide requirement to stop connecting new buildings to fossil gas lines. Only this will catalyze and lock in the rapid cuts in pollution from buildings required to meet our climate goals and protect the health of British Columbians.
Eby has shown he’s willing to ensure the province leads the way when necessary – and we hope he will do the same with this urgent climate action.
William Azaroff is the CEO of Brightside Community Homes Foundation and board vice-chair of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association. Dr. Melissa Lem is a Vancouver family physician and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Alex Lidstone is executive director of Climate Caucus, a non-partisan network of 500-plus current and former locally elected leaders.
The authors have joined more than 100 organizations representing the building sector, labour, municipalities, housing associations, health professionals and climate groups in calling on the B.C. government to keep gas out of new buildings.
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