By 2050, if the federal government has its way, Canada will reach its net-zero carbon emissions target. And now, thanks to legislation it tabled last month, it’s more than just talk. If passed, Bill C-12 will force current and future governments to set binding five-year emissions reduction targets that will get the country to its preferred environmental destination.
And while the new legislation might not be aggressive enough for some climate advocates, it’s far more ambitious than anyone would have thought possible even a few years ago.
But now that we know where we want to go on climate change, the real question becomes: How do we get there?
One major answer to that question lies in our own homes — or, more specifically, the opportunity to improve their energy efficiency and carbon reduction. That can be done through deep energy retrofits, the replacement of older natural gas furnaces with electric heat pumps, better insulation, more efficient lighting and appliances and other “house-as-a-system” renovations that help reduce heat loss and improve overall home comfort.
But right now, most Canadians don’t know what cost-optimal combinations of retrofits might best suit their needs. As a result, governments can’t effectively incentivize them to make the right investments. That’s because our carbon emissions targets are established using top-down economics-based methods, not bottom-up science-based predictive analytics. And as the famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
But with recent advances in data science and geospatial mapping (think of the maps on your phone), we can model and measure energy, emissions and costs at the household level with far more precision. In other words, while we measure carbon today with a top-down provincial carbon emission inventories, if we use new data science, machine learning and housing energy modeling techniques, we can achieve a much more precise and usable bottom-up method of determining a carbon score for each home and cost-effective energy savings opportunities.
This is a golden green leadership opportunity for the federal government. With its legislated mandate to advance science and technology for the benefit of Canadians, the federal government can work with the provinces to improve the ability of Canadians and entrepreneurs to access and understand the buildings and energy data that’s already out there.
The necessary leadership includes working with provincial utility regulators to demonstrate how sharing data with allied organizations, such as municipalities, universities and private-sector service providers, can benefit their customers, making their own programs more effective and saving capital dollars in the long run.
In the United States, the Obama administration did this with its 2014 Climate Data Initiative, billed as “a broad effort to leverage the federal government’s extensive, freely available climate-relevant data resources to stimulate innovation and private-sector entrepreneurship in support of national climate change preparedness.”
"Canadians don’t know what cost-optimal combinations of retrofits might best suit their needs. As a result, governments can’t effectively incentivize them to make the right investments," @thejamesriley says.
We can, and must, do the same thing here if we’re going to reach our 2050 net-zero targets.
American entrepreneurs have used that data to develop new products and services, and create new green jobs in the process. As a Canadian clean tech entrepreneur, I want to be able to do that here.
Customized home energy and carbon scores based on more granular housing data and behavioural economics can be extremely positive for cities who wish to meet and measure their climate reduction targets across Canada through deep energy retrofits. We could do this for every household in the country and demonstrate this success transparently.
With this important and innovative view of this data, governments and utilities can use that information to better design and deliver deep energy retrofit programming that will save Canadians money, create more green jobs and demonstrate that Canada is a technology innovator against the challenge of climate change.
All of this depends on the availability and accessibility of good information. More data isn’t a silver bullet, but right now we’re stuck trying to solve a mid-21st-century problem with 20th-century data and methods. As a result, Canadians don’t have the tools and information they need to make decisions that will reach our environmental goals and benefit themselves financially.
By providing a tangible number for their home’s emissions and showing them cost-effective carbon reduction options, governments and utilities can empower homeowners, landlords and renters to take action through available programs and incentives.
More importantly, it provides a sense of agency in the conversation about climate change, one that can often feel overwhelming and demoralizing. In time, and with access to the right information, we could have an even larger community of engaged citizens who make the best choices for the largest number of people. All it takes is a government that’s willing to lead and enable new data-driven clean tech solutions for the benefit of Canadians.
James Riley is an experienced digital strategist and entrepreneur. He is currently the CEO and Founder of Lightspark, a Vancouver-based company that uses machine learning to provide fast, measurable carbon and energy reduction and cost savings for communities.