COVID-19 has sent the world into the deepest global recession in almost a century. It has contributed to massive job losses across the economy and has highlighted the need for a comprehensive economic recovery plan. Given the concurrent climate crisis, we believe there is a great opportunity if not urgency to tackle both concerns by aligning economic investments needed for a post-COVID recovery with climate and sustainability objectives.
A way for Canada to secure an effective road to economic recovery while aligning with our sustainability goals is to invest in energy-efficient buildings. Investing in building infrastructure fills immediate needs and create both short and long-term economic benefits:
- Healthier and safer buildings.
- Improved energy efficiency.
- Reduced energy and operating costs.
- A decrease in Canada’s carbon footprint.
- Broad spectrum of skilled jobs distributed in communities across the country.
- Opportunities to engage a diverse workforce (Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, 2020).
COVID has taught us the importance of indoor air quality and given that the COVID virus is thought to be transmittable through building ventilation systems it is critical that Canadian building owners and operators have the expertise and resources to protect the health and safety of building occupants. Now is the time to make those investments while many buildings are at low occupancy and before businesses return to pre-COVID occupancy rates, so businesses can return to normal occupancy rates.
Commercial buildings are also a major contributor to carbon pollution. Nearly 13% of Canada’s carbon emissions come from buildings (Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, 2020). Countries around the world are recognizing the need to make changes with real impact. A renewed focus on energy-efficient buildings would get us closer to the goal of reducing emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The Economic Opportunity
The building sector is Canada’s largest private-sector industry, employing millions of Canadians. With increased investment into this sector, there would be an increase in job opportunities for a broad spectrum of people, including architects, interior designers, property managers, HVAC companies, carpenters, insulation manufacturers, construction workers, and many more trades and equipment suppliers.
Canada has an opportunity to invest in workforce training and skills training throughout the technical and community college system in Canada, noting that a new organization called Canadian Colleges for a Resilient Recovery has formed to coordinate a national effort in this regard. One of the most relevant job creation aspects of investments in building retrofits is that every community across the country is made up of buildings, creating local jobs in every region of the country. Other sector-specific investments may be important but tend to be narrower in their overall impact.
COVID-19 has heavily impacted commercial building owners. The future remains unclear as vacancy rates are climbing and there continues to be a great deal of speculation regarding commercial office space requirements once mandatory work from home restrictions evolve into hybrid working models with more companies offering permanent flexibility to employees to continue working from home. Healthy spaces will be in high demand, where tenants feel reassured that the building they occupy is safer.
The Path Is Clear
Given the importance of getting Canadians back to work and ensuring the safety of buildings, initial investments should focus on workforce training, and providing incentives to building owners and operators that focus on air quality improvements and thermal comfort to ensure a safe working environment when workers return to their workplaces.
Standards that focus on these ideas are WELL Health and Safety, Fitwel, and EnerPHit. WELL Health and Safety focuses on operational policies, maintenance protocols, occupant engagement and emergency plans in response to, and to prevent future crises. Fitwel focuses on enhancing indoor environments and changing human behaviour to promote personal hygiene and community wellbeing. EnerPHit is a standard for building retrofits that also includes measures to promote healthy indoor air quality to ensure the health and well-being of occupants.
These standards not only focus on improving the health of occupants but also contribute to an overall goal of energy efficiency crucial to meeting climate and sustainability objectives.
Finally, if done as comprehensive whole-building retrofits, these investments can be made in such a way that Canada can be on track to meet the newly announced target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 (Farand, 2020). There has never been a more critical and timely opportunity for Canada to make the major investments needed to make Canada a leader in sustainable healthy buildings while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs all across the country.