Home heating

We need to start building homes and other structures that require no fuel at all.

When I first thought about this, I thought it was impossible.  Turns out that not only is it not impossible, it is being done, and it is economical.

There are now an estimated 25,000 buildings built to the German Passivhaus standard.  This standard uses passive solar gain in highly insulated structures to reduce energy demands by an average of 90% below conventionally built structures.  Passivhaus buildings are specifically designed to eliminate the need for mechanical heating and cooling systems.  They are economical because insulation is cheaper than furnaces and ductwork.  People who live in such houses find them light, pleasant and quiet, since there are no furnace or air conditioning fans blowing through the house.

Several European countries are planning to phase-in a building standard that requires no fuel and a Passivhaus standard for retrofits is being developed.

Meanwhile, California is phasing in a Net-Zero standard this decade.  Every structure will require that it produce as much energy as it consumes.  It effectively makes every structure a power generator, ensuring that power is created right where it is needed.

Canada needs to develop a similarly ambitious building standard that suits Canadians.  And then we need to get to work to get off fossil fuels.

The challenge

Over 190 countries, including Canada, have agreed that global temperatures must be kept from rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  Kyoto nations as a group, including Canada, have agreed that to achieve this, developed countries as a group must reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80% by 2050.  192 nations, including Canada, have also agreed that a much tougher target of no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels may be required to prevent catastrophic climate change.  Furthermore, recent science indicates that the targeted emissions reductions are too timid, and 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 targets are unlikely to keep temperatures from rising even 2 degrees.

The bottom line is that in order to have any hope at all of preventing catastrophic climate change, we must expect at a bare minimum to reduce our emissions by 25% below 1990 levels this decade, and by 80% below 1990 levels by mid-century.  It is likely that we will have to do more.

We have been so negligent so far in Canada that a 25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 would require eliminating about a third of our emissions today.  So in the short term, we should be figuring out how to do with 1/3 less home heating fuels, 1/3 less transportation fuel, 1/3 less emissions from generation and 1/3 less emissions from industry, all within a decade.  And all of this must be done within a framework where we recognize that the long term targets will be much tougher.  We need to figure out how to get off fossil fuels altogether.

Think it can’t be done?  The alternatives are unthinkable.

If unrestrained, climate change could easily wipe out most of humanity even this century.  The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates that on our current trajectory, the Earth will only be able to sustain 1 billion people at the end of this century.  A new study by Anderson and Bows suggests it might be even lower – perhaps just half a billion and as early as 2060.  Today’s population is over 7 billion, and it is still growing.

And even if we were not to worry about climate change at all, we would still have to phase out of fossil fuels only a little later.  Conventional oil is running out.  Conventional North American natural gas is already in decline and the alternatives are nasty.  We’re even reaching the end of the best coal supplies.

So it’s time to get to work, with dedication, creativity and courage.

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