The heat of summer is upon us, and Canadians across the country are cranking up the air conditioning to stay cool. In Vancouver, residents who want to install air-conditioning systems in single-family or two-dwelling homes are now required to adopt a more climate-friendly form of cooling — and experts say other cities should follow suit.

Starting this year, the City of Vancouver requires anyone who wants to put a permanent air-conditioning system in a detached one- or two-dwelling home to install low-carbon heating and cooling. In most cases, that means adopting electric heat pumps as an alternative to conventional heating and air conditioning. This does not apply to individual standalone air conditioners.

The city now also requires home renovations with a value over $250,000 to meet construction bylaw requirements for new buildings when it comes to electrifying existing space heating and hot water systems.

“GHG (greenhouse gas) limits for new construction (single-family, multi-family and commercial) require the use of electric heating,” a statement from the City of Vancouver says. Most new developments are installing heat pumps rather than “separate systems for heating and cooling,” the statement reads.

According to the statement, the city has also introduced emission limits for existing commercial buildings that step down over time, starting in 2026 and continuing until 2040, when Vancouver aims to achieve net-zero emissions from those buildings. Owners are free to meet these limits however they choose, but most are replacing boilers with heat pump-type systems. Since Dec. 31, 2021, Quebec City has prohibited new construction projects from using oil-powered heating. And after Dec. 31, 2023, it will be unlawful to replace current furnaces with any fossil fuel-powered heating system, CBC reported.

Both Vancouver and Quebec City have financial incentive programs to encourage the installation of heat pumps in existing commercial and residential buildings. The City of Vancouver also has incentives for existing rental and non-market multi-family buildings to voluntarily install heat pumps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide cooling, where possible. And across Quebec, Hydro-Québec offers financial assistance of up to $2,800 for the installation of a heat pump under certain conditions.

“When constructing new buildings, the city aims to be at least 25 per cent more efficient than the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB),” said Jean-Pascal Lavoie, spokesperson for Quebec City. This can mean installing heat pumps, he said, pointing to two projects now underway, Bibliothèque Étienne-Parent and the Pointe-Ste-Foy community centre.

Vancouver and Quebec City, both in hydropower-rich provinces, are on Canada’s leading edge of the switch to more environmentally conscious heating and cooling systems that will help Canadians adapt to a hotter planet without contributing to greenhouse gas pollution.

Experts say Vancouver is showing excellent leadership with its new rules, and that to meet their commitments to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, all cities should make energy-efficient solutions like heat pumps mandatory.

In Vancouver, residents who want to install air-conditioning systems in single-family or two-dwelling homes are now required to adopt a more climate-friendly form of cooling — and experts say other cities should follow suit. #HeatPump

“Heat pumps are more efficient because they are able to move heat rather than burning fuel and converting that energy into heat (which translates to energy being lost),” said Betsy Agar, director of the Pembina Institute’s buildings program. “Unlike natural gas and oil heating, heat pumps move heat from one space to another, just like refrigerators. So, in the winter they capture heat from outside air and move it to the inside, and in the summer, they move heat out of the home to the outside.”

Heat pumps are especially ideal for larger cities, where there are increasing risks of brownouts on the hottest summer days due to high electricity demand for air conditioning, experts say. And with climate change putting more hotter days on the horizon, these low-emission devices can help homeowners cut back on the greenhouse gas pollution that causes global heating and creates a greater need for air conditioning in the first place.

“The net effect is that heat pumps can reduce carbon pollution in homes across the country, and in regions with low-carbon electricity like British Columbia, that reduction can be well over 90 per cent,” said Mark Hutchinson, vice-president of green building programs and innovation at the Canada Green Building Council.

A recent study from researchers at Toronto Metropolitan University calculated fully switching from a gas furnace to the most common type of air source heat pump would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent in Quebec City, 68 per cent in Vancouver and 52 per cent in Toronto, according to Sarah Riddell, policy research associate of clean heat at Efficiency Canada.

“Vancouver's policy has the potential to significantly reduce energy costs and emissions and create more comfortable homes,” said Riddell. Nearly 60 per cent of carbon pollution in Vancouver comes from buildings, mainly from burning natural gas (which is mostly methane, a fossil fuel) for heating homes and hot water. To fight climate change, the city needs to reduce emissions from buildings by 50 per cent by 2030.

More than 600 people were killed by heat in B.C. from mid-June to August 2021. Most of those people were in homes without adequate cooling systems, such as air conditioners or fans.

Other cities in Canada are behind Vancouver and Quebec but are taking some steps to transition homes and buildings off natural gas furnaces.

In Toronto, where buildings make up 58 per cent of the city’s total emissions, new buildings will be required to achieve near-zero emissions by 2028. The city’s Green Standard, which gradually increases energy-efficiency requirements, will eventually prompt every new building into switching to heat pumps, said Bryan Purcell, vice-president of policy and programs at The Atmospheric Fund, a regional climate change agency.

Even by 2025, Purcell believes Toronto’s Green Standard rules will be strong enough to ensure most new buildings have heat pumps. For existing buildings and repairs, there is no policy requiring heat pumps, said Purcell. “But certainly, we want to see heat pumps going in wherever possible as a preferred solution,” he added.

Purcell says all cities should consider requiring all air conditioners to double as a heating system, too. For example, in the U.S., there is a bill in Congress now that would effectively require manufacturers to make them all reversible, he noted.

“That is really an interesting approach, which could be done provincially or federally. I think nationally we should be looking at following the U.S. lead.”

Halifax doesn’t mandate the use of heat pumps, but the city’s climate action plan HalifACT supports decarbonizing home energy consumption through fuel switching from oil to electric heat pumps, said Ryan Nearing, the city’s public affairs adviser.

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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Cold weather air source heat pumps operating down to -30C are now available, this is a game changer, and should have been mentioned in the article. There is now no more need to install expensive ground source heat pumps.
Sam Clemann