Exploring the municipal role in net zero communities

I was pleased to be able to attend the recent CaGBC Municipal Leader’s Forum meeting held at Vaughan City Hall on November 9, 2016 which focused on the topic of net zero homes and net zero communities.  CEKAP has embarked on a research project that hopes to inform the conversation around the table.


The event featured a range of presentations by individuals involved in the green building sector’s push towards net zero, and was attended mostly by municipal government staff from across Southern Ontario who are interested in learning more about the role that municipalities can play in terms of providing leadership in policy and practice in the area of net zero communities.  Given CEKAP’s focus on supporting municipalities with strategic research and capacity building, I was interested in learning how our team might support municipal efforts.

The discussion was situated within the context of the need for global carbon emissions to fall to net zero sometime between 2055 and 2070 in order to achieve the global objective of limiting temperature rise to less than 2°C.  The building sector is seen as one of the key pathways towards achieving the target of net zero carbon.  The sector represents one of the largest sources of emissions globally and is where much of the low cost emissions reductions can be found, particularly in energy efficiency and conservation as well as the development of distributed building or community-scale low carbon energy sources such as rooftop solar and district energy.  Buildings will also play host to the growing electric vehicle charging network, creating a pathway to bend the curve on transportation sector GHG emissions.



In Ontario, the building sector represents 17% of total emissions (19% if electricity-related emissions are included) and, along with transportation, is one of the only sectors to have seen its share of emissions increase since 1990.  The provincial government, via its Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP) and other legislation such as the Ontario Building Code and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, rightfully sees the building sector as a key pathway towards achieving the provincial GHG reduction objective of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  New legislation is pushing the building sector towards net zero energy in new construction, particularly in the residential sector, and will create significant new financial incentives for energy retrofits in the existing building stock.

The CCAP also envisages a strong role for municipalities to drive the transition to low carbon buildings and low carbon communities, and is looking to empower municipalities through changes to the Municipal Act and the Planning Act.  Furthermore, the proposed Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe Region includes a goal of achieving net zero communities across the province, which are defined as “Communities that meet their energy demand through low-carbon or carbon-free forms of energy and offset, preferably locally, any releases of greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be eliminated.


Where these two policy directions (net zero building sector, and municipal empowerment) meet is an open question.  Given the strong turnout by municipal governments at the CaGBC’s leadership forum, it is clear that municipalities are keen to explore the role that they can play in stimulating/enabling deep reductions in building sector GHGs.  However, there was little discussion by presenters around the role that municipalities can play through changes to policy and practice in the land use planning realm that support the goal of developing net-zero communities.

Despite the absence of clear guidance, a number of municipalities in Ontario are moving forward with innovative approaches, in both a greenfield and infill development context, to support the development of “net-zero” or “near net-zero” communities.  Examples include: Guelph, London, and Ottawa.  These municipalities are experimenting with a variety of Official Plan policies, zoning bylaw amendments, and community energy plans to enable innovative partnerships between local distribution companies (LDCs) and private sector real estate developers that lead to the integration of renewable energy and district energy systems into new residential and mixed-use urban developments. These municipalities can be seen as providing “living laboratories” for policy innovation and supporting a “race-to-the top” for climate and energy ambition amongst municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) and beyond. In this regard, there is an important need for the provincial government and municipalities to understand what lessons can be learned from these early-adopter communities in terms of best practices for integrating climate and energy into growth planning, and more specifically into municipal Official Plans as well as how energy developers are engaged in the land use planning process at the municipal-scale.


In order to support municipal policy innovation, CEKAP will be undertaking research to explore this emerging world of net zero community policy, planning and implementation in an Ontario municipal context.  Specifically CEKAP will:

  1. Assess and compare innovative policies and procedures that are being used by Ontario municipalities to integrate growth planning with climate and energy planning.
  2. Assess the factors that support and define net zero community building in Ontario.
  3. Improve understanding of political, economic, and regulatory barriers and opportunities that municipalities face when trying to integrate growth planning strategies with their climate mitigation and energy management strategies to build net zero communities
  4. Facilitate knowledge diffusion to municipalities across the province about the lessons learned, innovative approaches, and ‘best practices’ of municipal innovators that have advanced integration of climate and energy into land use planning.

Through this research we will create a set of case studies that describe and dissect municipal policy innovation to support land use and energy policy integration. Stay tuned for more information on this exciting, and timely, research project!


Date Published: November 15, 2016
Written by: Ian McVey
Category: Blog