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A new federal policy could cut emissions from infrastructure and boost Canadian industry, but the government’s approach needs an upgrade: study

OTTAWA — A seventh of the world’s carbon emissions are associated with building materials like steel, cement, and aluminum, leaving a construction-shaped hole in global efforts to combat climate change.

In response, governments around the world—including Canada and the U.S.—are adopting “Buy Clean” policies to preferentially buy cleaner construction products for public infrastructure projects and grow the market for lower-carbon materials.

A new report from Clean Energy Canada and Global Efficiency Intelligence, Money Talks, models the potential impact of Buy Clean here in Canada. The report also offers recommendations—endorsed by an alliance of industry, labour and environmental groups—for how Buy Clean could cut even more emissions while supporting Canadian industry.

Canada already produces some of the world’s cleanest cement, aluminum, and steel thanks, in part, to its comparatively low-carbon electricity grid. But without a strong domestic market for these products, Canada could lose its competitive advantage as America’s new Inflation Reduction Act channels billions of dollars into growing the market for U.S.-made, low-carbon building materials—threatening Canada’s clean industrial head start. 

It’s one reason the Buy Clean Alliance (made up of steel, cement, aluminum, and forestry industry associations alongside groups representing labour and the environment) is advocating for Canada to up its Buy Clean ambition to ensure it stays in the race.

Our report finds that the Canadian public sector makes up around a fifth of all infrastructure spending in the country, while emissions from building publicly funded infrastructure is equal to the pollution from 1.7 million gas cars (8 million tonnes of CO2e). 

The federal government is developing a Buy Clean strategy for federal construction projects, like ports or government buildings, but this covers just 4% of all public spending and less than 1% of all infrastructure spending in Canada. 

The real heft of Canada’s public infrastructure spending rests with provinces, municipalities and Crown corporations. Only by adopting a truly national approach will Buy Clean significantly bolster Canada’s clean industrial market in the face of American competition.

The report recommends several steps the federal government should take to build a truly effective Buy Clean strategy, endorsed by the Buy Clean Alliance:

  • Expand the scope: Mandate Buy Clean requirements across the whole federal government, including for Crown corporations and federal investments in provincial and municipal infrastructure.
  • Develop provincial and local capacity: Create a dedicated team in the federal government to provide support to all levels of government—from provinces to municipalities—and the private sector to get on board with Buy Clean.  
  • Build the foundation for a national approach: Reform building standards to enable low-carbon materials while also investing in data, tools, and programs to test and scale even cleaner construction solutions.

QUOTES

“Canadian industry is already ahead when it comes to clean construction materials thanks to a comparatively clean electricity grid and a host of world-leading cleantech companies. By getting Buy Clean right, we can slash carbon pollution from our buildings and infrastructure while supporting Canadian industries and the thousands of jobs that go with them.”

Oliver Sheldrick, clean economy program manager at Clean Energy Canada

“Buy Clean policies that encourage the purchase of lower carbon construction materials, which are competitively produced by domestic industries, will keep good jobs for workers in communities across Canada. Buying clean will help maintain Canadian industrial jobs, significantly cut the embodied carbon of our buildings, bridges and infrastructure, and build a future we can all be proud of.”

Jamie Kirkpatrick, senior program manager at Blue Green Canada

Canada’s cement and concrete industry has been steadfast in our commitment to reduce our emissions by 15MT cumulatively by 2030 and reach true net-zero by 2050. A key component of realizing this goal is to increase the availability and use of low carbon concrete. By putting Buy Clean policies in place, governments can continue to enjoy the benefits of concrete—a durable, resilient, versatile and cost effective material—while at the same time realizing vital emissions reductions and supporting jobs in communities from coast, to coast, to coast.”

Adam Auer, President & CEO, Cement Association of Canada

KEY FACTS

  • About 13% of global emissions are “embodied” in the materials used to construct buildings and other infrastructure.
  • The two biggest polluters are cement and steel production, together responsible for around 14% of global emissions. Another 2% of global emissions come from aluminum production.
  • Demand for these materials is only projected to grow, with up to 45% more cement, 30% more steel, and 80% more aluminum expected to be required by 2050.
  • All public infrastructure spending in Canada totalled a sizable $62.5 billion in 2018, about one-fifth of all spending on infrastructure in the country, including housing.
  • Of this public spending total, direct federal procurement accounts for just 4%, while federal spending that is transferred to provinces, territories, and municipalities accounts for another 13%.
  • By taking a pan-Canadian approach, Canada could avoid up to half of its emissions from construction materials by 2030.

RESOURCES

Report | Money Talks

Technical Report | Advancing Buy Clean Policy in Canada

Related report | Lessons from the United States on “Buying Clean” and recommendations for Canada

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