Building 5.8M net-zero homes by 2030 requires politicians to get along: Task force for Housing and Climate

"Instead of saying everyone needs to cut back, we’re saying we need an almost unimaginable amount of work and productivity to create the built environment that will get us through the challenges of the moment.”

A net-zero energy (NZE) home produces as much energy as it consumes on a yearly basis and has at least one on-site renewable energy system. Green Energy Futures photo by David Dodge.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on March 5, 2024.

By Mitchell Beer

Federal, provincial, and municipal politicians across Canada must put aside their differences and work together on a national blueprint to build 5.8 million affordable, “net-zero-aligned” homes by 2030, concludes a 15-member task force co-chaired by former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and former Edmonton mayor Don Iveson.

“What does it mean to build more and better housing? For us, as for at least three-quarters of Canadians [pdf], it means making it affordable, making it low-carbon, and making it resilient to the worsening impacts of climate change,” the Task Force for Housing and Climate states in a report released this morning. The 58-page blueprint is addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, provincial premiers, and mayors, cabinet ministers, and councillors across Canada.

“Seizing this opportunity will require coordinated leadership by each and every one of you.”

“We really hope they come together and figure out that the way we overcome these key challenges is together, because success is not guaranteed,” task force member Adam Mongrain, director of housing at Quebec City-based Vivre en Ville, told The Energy Mix.

“Not working together has been a fair part of the problem over the past decades, and there may be good reasons for that,” he added. “But this fragmented way of working has allowed a crisis situation to become a wicked problem, and there is no way out of this that doesn’t go through unprecedented levels of intergovernmental solidarity, focus, and discipline,” with all orders of government sharing responsibility for the housing affordability and climate crises.

The task force report is one of two major pieces of housing and climate policy advocacy landing in Ottawa today, along with two coordinated letters urging Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to restore funding for the Canada Greener Homes energy retrofit grant program.

Five ‘Deciding Factors’

The task force of former elected officials, mayors and chief planners, Indigenous leaders, designers, builders and developers, affordability advocates, and finance and insurance experts came up with 10 recommendations and a slightly staggering 140 individual policy actions, in separate segments directed to federal, provincial, and local governments. “After “decades of misaligned and failed policies,” the report states, the right actions by all governments could “unleash a wave of innovation and productivity by builders, developers, non-profit and community housing associations, Indigenous communities, planners, labour, universities and colleges, and manufacturers, among others, to achieve the housing growth Canada needs.”

The common threads in the recommendations include urban densification, coordinated funding for infrastructure, transit, and housing, accelerated planning and approvals, integrated efforts to spur housing innovation through finance, labour force, procurement, and tax reform, rapid building code revisions, effective climate risk assessment, and close collaboration with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.

The report says the success of the effort will hinge on five “deciding factors”: where homes are built; how they’re designed and constructed; how the production process is set up; the underlying values behind the work; and whether all orders of government can come together around a Pan-Canadian Framework for Housing Growth. It argues that:

• Where construction takes place is “the single most powerful opportunity for building more and better housing,” since building where there is existing infrastructure can cut costs, speed up construction, reduce carbon pollution, and “prevent catastrophic loss due to climate threats like wildfire and flooding.”

• A building’s construction and operating costs, carbon footprint, climate resilience, and ability to scale all depend on the form of the building, the materials it’s made of, and the design standard to which it’s built.

• Manufactured housing, better building materials like mass timber and low-carbon concrete, and new immigration strategies that “cultivate and attract skilled labour” are all needed to boost productivity, speed up construction, and deliver more powerful climate benefits.

• The “why” of the whole effort is as important as the operational details. “Remembering that everyone in Canada has the right to live somewhere in security, peace, and dignity is fundamental for building the kinds of homes Canada needs,” the report states.

The Future Must Be Net-Zero

Mongrain said an “unheard of” level of cooperation across partisan and geographic lines made the task force itself an example of what Canadians should expect their governments to achieve. “We hope everyone can see what it cost us as task force members to get past our differences” and reach agreement.

From that starting point, “we’re realistic,” he told The Mix. “We can put these recommendations out there, but it’s going to be on policy-makers to actually follow the game plan we set out.”

That dynamic has task force members counting on their action plan to be “plausible and interesting and coherent enough” to inspire business and non-profit leaders, media, and regular electors and citizens to buy in, he added. “What we need is a lot of change happening all at once, so we want to make it visible for everyone so it doesn’t become politics or business as usual.”

Mongrain stressed that the task force’s recommendations will only work if the housing stock shifts swiftly to net-zero.

“It’s a necessary condition to meet the climate challenge,” he said. “It’s a given that there’s going to be pushback. But the framing we’re hoping to put out there is that this is actually desirable.” So far, climate solutions have been cast as depriving people of things they need and want—but everyone has been deprived of a winter this year, and half of Canada was on fire last summer.

“This is the immediate crossroads ahead of us,” Mongrain said. “But instead of saying everyone needs to cut back, we’re saying we need an almost unimaginable amount of work and productivity to create the built environment that will get us through the challenges of the moment.”

The deprivation already going on is that people across Canada can’t be housed, are losing their investments in their homes, or can’t get mortgages or home insurance, he noted. And last summer’s losses saw two mayors resign after leading their communities through wildfire evacuations.

Mongrain acknowledged the “tremendous risk” that policy-makers and elected officials will cherry-pick the task force recommendations, implementing a handful of the 140 action items and declaring the job done. But without a major, coordinated response, “the tensions we’re going through on both the affordability side and the climate side are going to rip us apart,” he said.

“If we don’t recognize the extreme urgency of doing this in a climate-forward way, there’s going to be no one to congratulate us on all the beautiful houses we’ve built, because we’ll have much more dire problems with the actual safeguarding of society,” he warned. “If we do this in a way that sets the world on fire, we’re in the world and we’re going to burn.”

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