More than 500 new condo towers are expected to join the Toronto skyline over the next six years, as the city desperately needs more housing. Environmental advocates are pushing for stricter standards to help prevent greenhouse gas pollution from these new buildings, but one advocate says even housing that meets the minimum building standards is better than no new housing at all.

“New condo buildings are necessary in many neighbourhoods to reduce the per-capita emissions of the people who live nearby,” says Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager for Environmental Defence.

“That's because they will help many currently less-walkable neighbourhoods achieve densities that will support all the essentials within walking distance and allow people to go car-free.”

Having stricter green building standards is extremely important, Pothen adds, but even housing that doesn’t meet those benchmarks is still far preferable to not building any housing at all and forcing the people who would have lived in the area to move elsewhere.

Ashika Theyyil, media relations manager for the city, makes a similar case for creating denser neighbourhoods. “Buildings constructed in Toronto avoid potential sprawl, which reduces transportation emissions and helps to preserve the natural environment,” Theyyil says.

The City of Toronto expects roughly 90 projects will be completed per year over the next 10 years, though it points out that the likelihood and timing of these projects depends on the applicant or property owner.

Buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto, making up 58 per cent of the city’s total emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels for heating, cooling and hot water. Condo buildings and other residential housing must meet the lowest level of the Toronto Green Standard (TGS), a set of building codes that seeks to cut down on planet-warming pollution. The latest version, passed in May 2022, requires building developers to meet a minimum set of environmental criteria, including a limit on greenhouse gas emissions per square metre per year. Residential buildings already under construction were most likely designed to meet earlier, less-strict versions of the TGS, based on the time of their planning application, the city says.

Still, buildings designed to meet even the lowest TGS requirements will have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those that only meet the minimum standards of the Ontario Building Code, says Theyyil.

Standards for high-performance and near-zero-emissions buildings are currently optional, but the city will gradually make those mandatory, rolling out stricter versions of the TGS in 2025 and 2028.

More than 500 new condo towers are expected to join the Toronto skyline over the next six years to address the housing crunch. Environmental advocates are pushing for stricter standards to help prevent greenhouse gas pollution.

However, Mark Hutchinson, vice-president of green building programs and innovation at the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC), says developers should aim for the higher building standards now, mandatory or not.

“Every building should be a zero-carbon building,” says Hutchinson, whose organization advocates for green buildings. “Every building that is not designed to be very efficient and run on electricity adds to the challenge of how we are going to retrofit all our existing buildings. It’s time to stop adding to the problem.”

Construction that sticks to the minimum green standards will likely use fossil fuels for heating, which could lock in those polluting sources of energy for “at least 15 years, and more likely about 25 years,” he added. Such systems are “not compatible” with Toronto’s goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

What’s more, “retrofitting the heating system 20 years from now to run on electricity is going to be costly and tenants will likely have to move out while the work is done,” he said.

Theyyil sees the city’s current green building standards as “an important market transformation tool,” noting new developments in the city are still opting for more sustainable design standards.

“Developments that have been built and constructed under earlier versions of the TGS, while not net-zero emissions, have critically been applying increasingly sustainable design standards that will be contributing to growing industry capacity to achieve upcoming net-zero emissions standards by 2028,” said Theyyil.

For his part, Pothen argues there’s another housing issue to tackle beyond condo tower construction.

“We should certainly do what we can to reduce the environmental impact of already approved highrise buildings without reducing the number of units we build or the rate at which we can build them,” he says.

“However, our real emphasis should be on revamping our rules” to allow for more three- to six-storey apartment buildings on residential lots, Pothen says, noting this land is “currently reserved for detached houses.” Better still if those homes can use eco-friendly building materials.

“These kinds of homes can combine the huge environmental benefits of dense, walkable, transit-supporting development, with the much lower embodied carbon of wood frame construction.”

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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There seems to be no consideration for the quality of life for the densification areas. These tall buildings cast shadows blocking sunlight and cause wind tunnels. Where are the green spaces and places to see trees which are important for mental health.

There is something called "human scaled urbanism" that addresses all of that plus economic sustainability. There is obviously a huge chasm in perception between high density towers and the sprawling monoculture of suburbia.

Environmental Defence gets it. Building communities where most people walk instead of drive not only has great benefits for reducing per person emissions profiles, but for human health and healthy neighbourhood economies.