Clean Energy Canada | When it comes to building materials, Canada has a climate advantage to use (or lose)
February 15, 2021

New U.S. President Joe Biden has a US$2-trillion plan to build America’s clean economy. That’s trillion with a t.

The plan is sweeping and includes, among many other things, spending on modern public buildings and infrastructure with the next generation of low-carbon building materials.

What will the U.S. be buying? Aluminum, cement, steel, and wood, the materials used to construct most things we build and whose production represents a vital part of Canada’s economic backbone.

The good news for us: when it comes to the carbon footprint of these construction materials, Canada has a unique advantage.

Thanks in large part to our country’s clean electricity grid (which is now 82 per cent emissions-free), goods produced here often have a smaller carbon footprint than those produced elsewhere. When you combine this with the efficiency of our manufacturers and the fact that it’s less polluting to ship materials across a land border than across an ocean, it becomes clear that Canada’s advantage is also its opportunity, an opportunity to not only build better in our own backyard—but to also help with renovations down south.

The scale of the undertaking should not be understated. Buildings account for 13 per cent of Canada’s carbon emissions, and when you add infrastructure, like roads and airports, the number is even higher. In short, we can’t achieve our 2050 goal of net-zero emissions unless we build better, and nor can the Biden administration.

In addition to cutting pollution, “buying clean” and investing in public construction also creates jobs at a crucial time when our economy is in recovery. These employment and economic benefits are outlined in Blue Green Canada’s latest report, which recommends three actions to capitalize on Canada’s low-carbon advantage.

First, governments should ensure all public spending on infrastructure prioritizes lower carbon materials, fuels, and processes, creating new markets, supporting jobs, and stimulating demand for these products.

As an example, Canadian-made Portland-limestone cement contains up to 10 per cent less embodied carbon than ordinary Portland cement, and it costs the same. If it were used exclusively across Canada, we would avoid over one-million tonnes of carbon pollution every year.

Secondly, we need an Industrial Decarbonization Strategy to identify the low-carbon advantage of Canadian industries and manufacturers. We must demonstrate, commercialize, and promote high-potential technologies that further reduce the carbon footprint of Canadian manufacturers, while ensuring our products become and are recognized as the most sustainable in the world.

Canadian steel is already among the world’s cleanest, and yet Canada spends more than $7-billion annually on imported steel and aluminum that’s typically higher-carbon. The steel made at an Ontario facility, for example, is about a third less carbon-intensive than steel made in the U.S.—and nearly 80 per cent cleaner than steel made in China.

Finally, the federal government should establish a Clean Infrastructure Challenge Fund to encourage the use of low-carbon building materials in the construction of public infrastructure. The challenge would showcase the potential of these solutions for use in all forms of infrastructure.

This one-time fund dedicated to public projects would be available to provinces, territories, municipalities, and Indigenous communities to support infrastructure projects that reduce pollution through the use of low-carbon building materials.

Together, these actions would help create a stronger ecosystem for clean building in Canada, unlocking overlooked pollution-cutting opportunities while supporting Canadian manufacturers by creating the conditions for them to compete and win in a cleaner and cleaner global marketplace.

We already have the advantage. It’s time for Canada to put its strengths to work.

This post was co-authored by Ken Neumann, the Canadian national director of United Steelworkers, and originally appeared in the Hill Times.