Green Building Finds a Home in Climate Mitigation

In this podcast, Micah describes his journey towards sustainability, the significance of green buildings, how to incorporate equity issues into green building policy planning design and what the players across the building's value chain need to be doing to fix emissions.

In this podcast, Micah describes his journey towards sustainability, the significance of green buildings, how to incorporate equity issues into green building policy planning design and what the players across the building's value chain need to be doing to fix emissions.

https://share.transistor.fm/e/59eba553/dark Kamal Kapadia [01:44]: All right. So, I am delighted to be here with Micah who, as Kirti just mentioned, not only is he an expert in green buildings and climate action more generally, but he’s also a really dear friend and an old housemate from a long time ago. And I am going to actually start with just a little personal anecdote from the time that my husband, Matthias and Micah and I lived together in Berkeley. Because Micah is well known as an expert on green buildings, but what people don’t know about him is that he also knows a fair bit about electrification of vehicles and electrification of transport. And he knows this in a very personal way because when we lived together in Berkeley, he bought a very old car and he decided to personally convert the car over to an electric car. And so, we had the fun experience of living with him while he was tinkering with his car and trying to figure out how to convert it from fossil fuel run vehicle to an electric vehicle.

So, yeah, on that note, I am going to jump right into the questions. So, welcome Micah. Really great to have you with us.

Micah Lang [02:57]: Thanks so much for having me. Great to talk to you, Kamal.

Kamal Kapadia [03:00]: So, I am going to just start with a general question about your background, and if you can just tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to this current moment.

Micah Lang [03:10]: Before I jump in, I also wanted to just say Happy Martin Luther King Day, which is a national holiday in the United States. And just to acknowledge what a messed up and trying situation the United States is in right now, and that it’s great to celebrate someone so important in transformational U.S. history like Martin Luther King junior and trying to aspire to his ideals and what he was able to accomplish. And that’s the type of transformation that we find ourselves needing right now today.

So, anyways. How are you and your family doing Kamal, before I start talking about myself?
Kamal Kapadia [03:50]: Thanks for asking Micah. We are all doing well. We are grateful to be doing well in these trying times, as you mentioned, in the United States. How are you doing, and how is your family?

Micah Lang [04:02]: We are good. We are very fortunate to live in British Columbia. And the global pandemic, we are experiencing it in less acute ways than elsewhere in the world. The province and the national government have responded in a strong and sort of sensical way from the outset. And so, we, I think, find ourselves in a little bit better shape than many other places, which I feel very fortunate for.

But clearly, living at this moment in time, it doesn’t take away from the stresses of what’s going on globally, with a pandemic as well as what’s going on in the United States with the racial tensions with the tumultuous political happenings in the United States. And it doesn’t take away from the fact that we are also in a climate emergency.

This current moment that we find ourselves in, this moment in human history… You know, I sense, it’s the beginning of a turning point. I’m going to try and put an optimistic spin on it. I mean, we are not going to bend the trajectory of global emissions and environmental destruction. Nor are we going to be able to systemic racism and increasing quality and corporate power and erosion of democratic institutions without some sort of large widespread global change and consciousness. And it might take some really negative and bad and powerful events for that to come about. And hopefully, we are at a turning point, we’re beginning that turning point now. And I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But, sort of, going to your question, let me first talk a little bit about my own journey a bit. My journey did start with my own personal change and consciousness. And so, going back in time pre-teen years, growing up in a family that enjoyed the outdoors, living in Western Montana, I was very aware of the environment and how wonderful it was to just spend time in the natural world.

When we moved from Western Montana to the suburbs in Seattle, I was acutely aware of, through the urban environment. I lived in a small town with a few large industries. I saw the effect of booming capitalism, how it mixed with weak land use controls and turned the richest agricultural land in the world into distribution warehouses. I saw sort of all these things.

And moving from pre-teen to teen years, that’s a moment when a lot of us start to grapple with our identity and like, what is this world we live in. For me, that’s like, when I became quite a strong environmentalist. And by that time, I got my driver’s licence at the age of sixteen. And I think it’s appropriate that you mentioned that story of the electric vehicle conversion in your intro, because I was about to tell you another car story.

So, I really wanted my driver’s licence, and I’d always been attracted to sort of the aesthetics and mechanics and the speed of cars. But being an environmentalist, I knew how evil they were. And so, if I drove one, I needed to do something to justify it. And so, these were pre-internet days. I went to my high school library, the local library, and I educated myself on these large global companies, their supply chains and all of that really kind of terrible things that they were doing. And so, when my big-hearted stepdad, he let me have use of our sort of old beaten Mitsubishi pickup truck, within the first week of having had my license and starting to use this truck, I went to a local hardware store and bought these big four-inch tall, bright, red letter and filled the entire tailgate with the words, “Don’t buy Mitsubishi environmental and human rights violators.” And I drove around this small conservative town, relatively conservative for Western Washington with, in this truck.

Because I wanted to be a conversation starter, I wanted to engage people on this issue, even if it was passively. And to be frank, most people, I think, just thought I was crazy and they didn’t talk to me. But certainly, at my high school, I started conversations and people I interacted with at my actual job. And so, there has to be something that has kind of shaped people out of their complacency and out of the comfort that they’re in. But for me, it was a number of small things that led to the sort of observing the world around me and educating myself. I’m like what was happening. I think it takes bigger events to shake people out of what for many people is a comfortable life. And there has been a few of those in my lifetime. And Kamal, for you it was probably… was it the Union Carbide gas tragedy in Bhopal? Did that have a similar effect?

Kamal Kapadia [09:04]: Yeah, and thanks for asking Micah. Yeah, that was actually a really big wake up call for me. And interestingly, I was aware of this issue in India. But I actually had to leave India and I was in the United States when I really started digging in deeper and learning more. And I would say that was like a really big turning point for me in terms of understanding global justice issues and environmental justice. And it turned me onto those topics, and I went much deeper into them in my PhD. And just for context, the Union Carbide tragedy was a major environmental disaster that took place in India in the 1980s and it had long lasting effects and involved the U.S. Corporation operating in India, and how these people died in the tragedy, and there’s been ongoing environmental effects due to that in, up to today.

So, yeah, you are totally right, I really loved what you said about these kinds of big events being transition moments for all of us. And I just want to sort of bring it back to green buildings. And if you could just tell us a little bit about sort of how you went from your Mitsubishi activism to the position you hold today as Senior Green Planner at the city of Vancouver?

Micah Lang [10:17]: Sure. So, I’ve always seen myself as someone who is working for environmental change and really interested in environmental justice issues first and sort of that, the intersection of people and the environment they live in. And, even though I was, have been aware of and really concerned about global warming and global climate change for a long time now, I didn’t like to leave with that as a topic, because for most people that you interact with and engage with, it was just too abstract to talk about global climate change. They didn’t know what it meant; they didn’t know how it impacted their lives. That of course has changed now. But before I wanted to engage on more specific of local issues.

And so, water was a major theme earlier in my career and during graduate school, looking at the intersection of water, the environment, sort of large global changes that were happening and how that’s impacting people’s lives.

During that kind of special, magical, bubbly years of graduate school when you are exploring the world, you are trying to figure out what you want to do. Much simpler terms, I might say looking back, I wanted to get more involved in some things, you know local to me in North American community I was living in at that time. And an opportunity came up to work on local climate action with cities and metropolitan governments. And I sort of dove feet first into that world, which really was quite rewarding, and it was something that I had not been involved in previously. But that led to taking a bit of a meandering path that led to my current role up in Vancouver, British Columbia, working for the government here, for the city government, focusing on green building policy. And really, I’d become a green building policy expert just in the last six years, where I have focused my current position.

And, I think, yeah, at the moment I can get into the, you know what’s unique and powerful and important about green buildings right now. But the journey was a bit meandering. I think the unifying theme there is like, connecting people with the environments and, at a local level. At a government level, you are able to see the impacts of that and influence at a scale that’s… you can actually influence and create change which is fantastic and empowering. When you think about these at a global scale it can become overwhelming really quickly.

Kamal Kapadia [12:52]: Yeah, I really like what you just said Micah, about the fact that, it’s kind of hard for most people to wrap their head around the nature of climate change because it’s such a big, global and amorphous seeming problem. But the space for action really is local. It’s exactly where you’re at. I really appreciate that.

Can you tell us a little bit about your day to day work? So, you know, what does it look like? In a minute we’ll talk about kind of big picture policies etc. But we’re just curious, like what does your day look like and what sort of challenges you face? And also, has pandemic affected your work in any way?

Micah Lang [13:29]: The pandemic has absolutely impacted my work. And I think the challenge right now, the new imperative that we are presented with is, to think, plan and act in a way that addresses the three global emergencies we are facing. As policymakers, you can’t split issues right now. You have communities that are really struggling economically. You have racial tensions at an all-time high. You have 1864 local other levels of government that have declared climate emergencies around the world. More than 800 million people belong to those jurisdictions.

So, you have these three major global emergencies and yes, think how can you address them concurrently. And that’s really forced us locally. And I think local governments around the country and around the world are trying to figure out how to do this.

And the good news is there are synergies. There are a lot of good new stories about how you can use incentive programs in building codes and land use tools to spur economic growth, disperse spending in areas that’s going to make our buildings better, they are going to make them more resilient. They are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And so, that’s the, kind of a big piece of work that we are trying to do right now. And I think it’s not going to be possible to move forward big changes on the building fronts from a green building perspective or from a climate mitigation perspective, unless you are addressing the other two at the same time. And so, you have to be able to just speak to all three right now.
Kamal Kapadia [15:22]: Can you give us a little bit of sneak peek into a project or two that you are on, that’s either already under way or in development?

Micah Lang [15:30]: A big new initiative that came out of Vancouver in November, just a couple of months ago. The city has a new climate emergency action plan. And within that plan, we have a zero-emission building retrofit strategy, that was the big-big space piece that I worked on. But this climate emergency action plan, it brought to the forefront equity and racial justice issues. And it’s development was informed by climate equity working group work. And we are undertaking some work this year to formalize a climate justice charter that’s going to guide work that the city is going to be doing going forward.

And there are a lot of intersectional sort of cross cutting issues that we are trying to deal with right now. One of the issues that is most acute is affordability in our city, and this is a problem in many cities in North America. And so, trying to think about what does it mean for renters, what does it mean for affordability, like how do we advance our climate mitigation efforts and address the affordability issue. And this is a huge challenge. We don’t have answers right now, but it’s something that we are specifically looking at, as we start to implement the actions that were approved as part of the climate emergency action plan and our zero-emission building retrofit strategy.

Kamal Kapadia [16:54]: So, this is really interesting because, when people think of green buildings, they don’t usually think of the ways in which green building policy or programs can intersect with actually developing programming around that. And I think this is not just relevant for Vancouver or North America, but just generally because you have got so many places where there are just like extreme inequities in access to affordable housing.
Kamal Kapadia (17:25):So, I am just going to like stay on this topic for another minute or two. Can you give us like an example or two of how people who work on green building policy planning design, can actually incorporate equity issues into their work?

Micah Lang [17:43]: Yeah, absolutely, I’ll give a couple of examples. So, the first is, the building code. To put it in generic terms, in every state and in some cases, local governments have a code that dictates how you can just construct buildings. In most situations it’s the minimum. It’s sort of the worst building that you are allowed to build. And it typically gets applied across an entire city or across an entire state or province or jurisdiction, with a few minor variations, depending on what type of building it is. But very rarely, if ever, differing based on geography or the local context.

And so, you have these average conditions that are taken into account. And so, when you have affordable housing that is clustered on major thoroughfares close to highways or transit nodes or close to truck routes, that is no different from the code elsewhere. And these projects are often built as cheap as possible, because they are done with government funding and they want to maximize the number of units that are constructed.
You have no consideration for all those air pollutants that are in concentrations ten times where they are on average for the city for those residents who have no consideration of the ventilation impacts and the health impacts on those residents. That’s one example. And so, we really need to look at our building codes and think about you know who are they there to benefit. If they can’t help and, or if they are hurting our residents who are most vulnerable, then that’s a huge failure. So, you need to look at our building codes really carefully.

Then, from a land use perspective, I mean, I work in the planning department of the city, and planning departments are sort of the architects of, and currently at ground zero of instituting and upholding the most colonial oriented and discriminatory practices in the city. And that’s the sacrosanct, like land use designations. And so, you know it’s upholding the character and the low-density amenities associated with irrigating single attached dwellings, segregating different uses across the city, and really upholding or exacerbating things like affordability by concentrating growth only in certain areas of the city, not allowing more egalitarian approach to really development and urban living.

And so, also land use and land use tools are by far the most effective tool that a local government or a state government has at their disposal, because with it, you can leverage millions or billions of dollars and assets, which is essentially through the can valleys. And so, those are the two areas, both land use tools, thinking about how we can change zoning and change land use, so that you’re both, increasing housing choice, increasing affordability, and while doing so, advancing our green building agenda, and also just looking really close at building codes to ensure that they are helping our residents that are most vulnerable.
Kamal Kapadia [20:51]: Thanks to that Micah. Let’s bring it to carbon emissions for a moment. So, buildings that count for something like 38% of the planets, carbon dioxide emissions from energy, but they are often overlooked in climate commitments. So, can you give us some examples of what say all the players across the buildings’ value chain need to be doing? Just touch on like maybe two or three key interventions from a carbon reduction perspective?

Micah Lang [21:21]: Yeah, there is work for everybody to do. And I am also optimistic and really heartened by recent work by a number of groups, sort of local groups globally on this topic. There is a building decarbonization collision focused on the state of California that integrates through the whole value chain of players. And that’s, their first piece of work was to create a roadmap, and now they are actioning that roadmaps for what do owners need to do, what do designers, consultants need to do, what role do trades and utility companies need to play, and critically, what do local state, provincial and federal governments need to do.

We are undertaking similar work to that, and in British Columbia we have a building electrification roadmap that’s going to roll out quite shortly. And in going for this exercise and bringing together stakeholders from all these different groups, it really becomes clear that everyone needs to play a role. So, starting at the top, the money comes from the states and the federal government. So, that money comes in the form of incentives to drive consumers towards products, specific products like heat pumps. You have got the power of taxes, whether it’s tax breaks or tax incentives for those types of investments. And then you also have the building codes. And so, they often originate at the state or at the federal level. And so, those pieces are critical.

Moving over to the utilities, like there are a lot of barriers currently in place to electrify buildings. And electrification is what we need to do, like that needs to be the focus. And so, the utilities can do a lot of work to remove costs, to remove complexity in the process for electrifying more of the end users within buildings. And then, there are a lot of things that an owner can do who is interested in doing their share, interested in some of the new technologies. There are a lot of things that they can be asking, if their consultants are asking their trades.

And in most situations, you can find a solution that works, even in the face of some of the barriers that might exist in the building code, or some of the financial barriers. There is often always a building specific solution that’s going to significantly reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, as well as beneficial to that owner and the residents or the occupants of that building in the long-term.

Kamal Kapadia [23:45]: That’s great Micah. It’s great to hear that there is just a role for everybody to play. I’m curious if you have faced in your own work any particular challenges, like, are there sectors that you work with, or just particular policies that just seem harder to implement, and what those challenges are, and how you are going about dealing with them?

Micah Lang [24:06]: The… Some of the greatest challenge is working collaboratively with and between the large bureaucratic organizations, sort of namely, the state and provincial governments, the utilities and then the local governments of the cities. Like, those are the players that really need to be coordinated to work well together. They need to be at the table together. They need to be on the same, using the same planchet for how they are going to reduce emissions in the built environment, and be on the same page about what are the barriers that are trying to be removed. And that often involves looking at changing policies or changing financial drivers or incentives that are cross cutting, that are bigger than just the issue at hand. And that requires dedication from an organizational perspective and commitment to this process. And so, trust as well that this work is being done in good faith and that you have a willing and able partner.

And so, going back to the climate emergency declarations and the fact that so many levels of government and governments around the world have recognized it, that’s huge because it’s normalizing the fact that we need to invest significant public resources to address these challenges. And that is opening the doors for these collaborations between organizations that typically might find it more difficult to work together on such a daunting challenge or issue.
Kamal Kapadia [25:35]: Let’s spend a few minutes talking about technology. So, can you just tell us a little bit about some technologies that are just enabling the transitions for green buildings right now, and there sort of particular things in the pipeline or even just currently on the market that you are particularly excited about, that just seem to offer a lot of hope for the transition?

Micah Lang [25:58]: There is a lot of really exciting and interesting technology, innovation, developments happening in the green building world right now. There is lot of interesting work and exciting work going on the building envelope side, building ventilation side, as well as the mechanical systems on the heating side.

I’ll start with the envelope where the walls, the windows, the doors of buildings… Going back a decade, or actually a little bit less than that, thinking locally where I’m at, the city of Vancouver, we realized that our buildings were really poorly performing from a thermal efficiency perspective. Like the walls and windows were just leaking heat and poorly performing in all respects. And so, we looked around at opportunities for how to fix this.

And so, one really important standard from a market transformation perspective that’s been really influential in Europe and North America as well is the passive house standard. We reference it in our voluntary building standards for, that basically incentivized higher levels of performance for new buildings in exchange for increased density. And so, we have referenced the passive house standard to that effect. And it’s seen a huge market uptick as a result.

And that’s the most important things for a new construction, is reduce the thermal demand for energy for heating first. And then you can figure out how you’re going to provide that energy as a second point. Because that envelope should last sixty years if it’s well constructed. And it’s what, sort of the starting point for a building in terms of its performance. So, you have to get that right first.

There has been a lot of new technologies around windows, innovations in how you build wall assemblies. And this is also a great new story from a local economic development, because many of these products are to be implemented cost effectively and buildings have to be manufactured within the region, because it’s expensive and cumbersome to ship windows and wall assemblies and other things to long distances. And so, we have seen a huge boom to the local window manufacturing industry locally, as has been the case in other places in North America as they’ve, there has been an increase in uptick of passive house or of passive building technologies. So, that’s been a really, a good new story.

Maybe just speaking briefly on the mechanical side, heat pumps are super important. Basically, a heat pump is a device that moves heat energy from one side of a partition to another. And so, in the summer, you can use it to cool your building for space heats. Winter you can use it to heat it. And they operate at efficiencies or in other, in the mechanical engineering world, the coefficient of performance greater than one or greater than 100%. And so, you have both, a huge gain in efficiency but also as their runoff of the electricity most commonly, a shift away from the more carbon intensive heating sources in North America, in Vancouver. Certainly, in the case of many buildings, the majority of buildings are heated by natural gas, which is really problematic from a climate perspective. It’s problematic because it leaks, there is tons of emission that happens from it’s extraction. It leaks in it’s distribution, it leaks when it’s stored, it leaks in buildings and homes which is, in many cases, not accounted for in the greenhouse gas inventories. And then, of course, when you combust it as well it produces emissions. And so, there is a lot of work to do in many parts of the world and regionally, as well as reduce the carbon intensity of the electricity grid.

But we need to, in some instances, compartmentalize or break up the problem. And so, in British Columbia, we are fortunate to have a very low greenhouse gas intensity for our electricity grid because of a lot of legacy, large hydroelectric facilities. But the innovation in heat pump designed technology helps accelerate that, helps enable that because you are able to reduce the consumption of electricity if you are having greater and greater efficiency pieces of equipment that come in more sizes and more, are appropriate for a wide range of different applications.

So, initially, what you might have seen just on sort of two ends of the spectrum, like literal units that were appropriate for heating like a single room and like, really, really big units that are designed for large office buildings. Now we are starting to see units come into our market that are appropriate for many more different types of applications. And as their market share grows, the costs come down as well. And so, that’s another really key piece for enabling this low carbon transition.

Kamal Kapadia [31:03]: Wow! That’s a lot of new exciting technology coming on the market. And one of the things that really struck me as you were speaking was this aspect of the fact that retrofitting or green buildings actually really stimulates the local economy by creating all this local manufacturing. That’s a really sort of interesting, not even a side effect, just a really major impact that people don’t typically associate with green buildings. And so, I think it’s really useful to highlight that, that it’s sort of… and not only ends up creating local jobs in the construction and retrofitting industry itself, but also in the manufacturing sector like you mentioned around windows and other parts of the building envelope sort of technologies.

So, just kind of staying on this topic again since you know, we have touched on equity a few times. And you know, trying to sort of take a global perspective now say in places where governments cannot have a lot of money or people, there is a lot of poor people concentrated in cities. Are there interesting and innovative ways of financing these kinds of new types of green buildings and retrofits that you have seen or noticed, that have more global relevance as well?

Micah Lang [32:17]: Yeah, there is a lot of examples of effective financial tools that are out there. And this is actually a space that we are going to be investing some time ourselves herein British Columbia and the greater Vancouver region to rollout. I would say we are behind many places in terms of financial tools, but there is a lot of promising examples to point to globally.

I think, an innovation that originated in North America was the property assessed financing, and this is been really effective for both, commercial buildings as well as residential buildings where the local government plays a role so that they step in and attach the debt associated with energy upgrade projects to the property tax bill, which allows a much longer payback period for investment, and also ensures really low interest rates because the borrowing ability of local governments, they are able to access much lower interest rates an individual would. And so, this has been really effective I think in multiple places in the United States. It’s been quite effective for, on the commercial buildings where they might not have the same access to credit as the, sort of big players do. And it also eliminates a really important barrier of the fact that, in most commercial lease situations, the tenant who is paying for the energy. And so, there is the split incentive that exists because of that where the owner is investing in the building, but it’s the tenant or the lessee who is paying the energy bill. And so, by taking that financing off book, putting on the property tax, as well as allowing it. And because, in most least situations, the tenant is paying a part of that property tax bill, and that’s the structure of most commercial leases, then you have eliminated that, that split incentive as well. And so, that’s become a really powerful tool from that perspective.

There is also been a lot of success, and this is more so in Europe, but there is growing interest. And I think a program is about to be launched here in Canada on much larger scale financing where federal or central governments play a role where they aggregate hundreds or thousands of projects together. They are able to use access from super low financing rates. And also working at scale, they are able to basically turn these into assets that can then be sold to investors. Financial resources are limited, but if you are able to get the investment world interested in these and turn it into a financial product, you have eliminated that barrier as well. And so, there are a number of national scale energy retrofit initiatives that have taken place in European countries through the European Investment Bank. The Canadian government just announced a program that’s going to be run through the Canada Infrastructure Bank that’s focused on commercial buildings, that’s going to be on the order of $1 billion focused on retrofits and utilizing a similar approach.

And so, there is things that can take, that are interesting that are taking place across the whole spectrum of scale from individual building or individual homeowner getting a loan on their property tax bill all the way up to sort of national level programs. And this is really important because if you are going to drive change, you need to be sending the right financial signals. And this work is critical to do initially because you need to change the market, like you need to put in place the signals so that the market is going to evolve, it’s going to become mature. And then you need the codes and the standards. Those are critical as well. And so, you can’t just choose one or the other. You need to have an approach that has the financial incentives in place. You need to have the codes and standards, and then you need to also have the sporting pieces there to help both building owners, understand what they need to do, how they can do it, as well as support for the trades, and the industry folks are going to be implementing these changes too.

Kamal Kapadia [36:38]: What I’m finding really interesting is, I feel like, when I started this conversation, I had a much more limited understanding of green buildings, and I am beginning to see how this sort of lens or focus on green buildings can actually be a way of addressing some critical equity issues in cities. It’s a way of generating a lot of local employment, decent livelihoods. And it’s also a way of unleashing some innovative finance in general. So, the fact that kind of states and cities and federal governments can create these sorts of green bonds and then use it to basically finance green buildings, and therefore, has a sort of multiplier effect in the local economy. So, there is a lot of interesting win-win situations that can be enabled through just this world of green buildings.
Kamal Kapadia (37:32):Let’s focus a little bit more again on Canada. Canada Green Building Council recently released the climate forward report. What are some key highlights of this report that you could share that you find particularly interesting?

Micah Lang [37:47]: Sure, yeah. This fall is on what you were just mentioning Kamal, and the conversation we are just having. The report is focused on an economic stimulus and recovery from the global pandemic that is going to have, result in a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from our buildings.

So, the report looked at, okay, what could it take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector, 50% in the next decade, which is what climate model is called for there. I mean, if we are going to be on rack to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to be reducing emissions 50% in the next decade. And so therefore look at, look… Okay, for buildings what does this mean, what can we be doing. And the modeling showed that there is going to be close to 1.5 million jobs generated at a national level in Canada, which is going to have billions of dollars in economic benefits, if you’re going to make this a priority, reducing the emissions. And the reason you are able to have such a huge economic benefit is, for the reasons that we have been touching on in this conversation. I mean, there is, in this shift to greener technologies, there is a lot of local economic benefits, like from the manufacturing side to the skilled trade side. Even to the building owner side where even though there might be some small, incremental cost increases for these technologies in the long run, they are going to be better off in many cases from an operational perspective, and the co-benefits are often quite large to buildings for some of these investments.

Another key part of this, and you know we’ve been touching on this is, this has its origins even before the current focus on what our pandemic and climate coordinated response is going to look like. And that’s the transition framework that emerged from the trade union movement to encompass really a whole range of social interventions that are needed for workers within the skilled trades, so that as economies to those that are going to be low carbon in nature and that are focused on protecting the environmental and mitigating climate change, that they are included in this process and that they are benefiting as well. And I think having the just transition framework or movement already established, has really prepared us well for this moment to move quickly to low carbon building. It’s something that industry is familiar with.

And quite frankly, speaking about the skilled trades, like they as a whole are always having to adapt to change. And it’s something that they know it’s, the industry is always changing. And I think the change that we are talking about now, it might be a little bit faster, and some of the shifts are a little bit more significant. But we know it’s coming. Governments are sending the right signal that this transition is going to take place. And knowing that, we can prepare adequately. We can work with, we, meaning different levels of government can work with industry associations and industry groups and trade unions to identify what are the upskilling that’s required. Do you need to create a new micro credential for example that someone who has a gas ticket or is a red seal plumber, or has already gone through their HVAC training, but maybe there is a need for a new certification, for a new type of system like air to water heat pump which is becoming increasingly important, a new construction here in Vancouver.

So, you can work with industry to develop these new training programs so that you start to put in place the training now, as the demand increases from those incentives and those financial tools that government utilities are utilizing in advance of the codes coming in place. And so, another example of how you need to work in a coordinated manner, and that industry can really benefit. I mean, sure, there is going to be a decrease in the work for gasfitters over time, but it’s going to be a gradual transition. It’s not going to happen overnight. And if we work in a collaborative manner, then there is gonna be plenty of opportunities for folks who are in the middle of their career or early in their career, to upskill so that they can work on the new technology and the new equipment when it is introduced.

Kamal Kapadia [36:38]: Fantastic. I mean, it seems like a lot of what’s in the climate forward report and the plans, it’s quite widely relevant as well. And just sort of as tools of like economic recovery, just generally, there is a lot of good learning in there for lots of places, I think.
Kamal Kapadia (42:39):Let’s talk a little bit about general awareness about this. So, do you feel like there is, you know awareness in the media about what’s happening around green buildings, or are there ways in which you wish the media talked about it differently? Any thoughts on that.

Micah Lang [42:59]: I would say the issue or the topic that the media has become, is very interested in, in the last year, has to do with the transition from fossil gas to electricity or to cleaner sources of energy. And this has been as a result of all of the progressive work that local governments are doing in this space, as they look at updating their codes, both, their zoning and development policies, as well as their building codes to transition away from gas using equipment.

And obviously there is people in the short run, there is companies in the short run who are going to be negatively impacted by that, primarily those who have a strong economic interest in fossil gas or natural gas as it’s called in North America. And so, that’s gotten a lot of media stories. And it’s getting I’d say pretty fair coverage of the issue. I mean it’s something that is, in some places it’s being called the gas ban. And that’s not just the language of industry who is opposed to it, it’s like the language of local governments and the advocates for this transition they are calling it, we need a gas ban. In other places it’s much more nuanced, and it’s not actually a gas ban.

And that’s coming to where I’m at in Vancouver. We are taking the approach of collaborating with our gas utility. And going back five years ago, we did have the media and the industry groups and the city basically in a public relations battle over this topic, when the city first made strong commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next coming decades.

But that’s evolved into a more constructive partnership. And it’s the realization that what matters is reducing carbon emissions. Like that’s what matters. And we are fortunate in that there are renewable alternatives to fossil gas, and there is quite a large supply of it comparatively to British Columbia than to elsewhere. And so, if you are able to take waste methane from landfills, from dairies, from other waste sources, and incorporate that into the gas distribution infrastructure and network. And that significantly lowers the greenhouse gas impact. And so, looking at those both, as a transition resource as well for some specific applications where they might really need just high temperatures for the operation in the industry, it could be a long-term solution as well.

But the other I think reason why, you know, in our case, I don’t think the gas ban rhetoric is helpful is that, some of the most cost effective short-term ways to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and when we are talking about you know an 80% reduction at a building scale, is to go to a hybrid system, where you have a heat pump that is going to be doing 90% of the work for that building. But because of the huge incremental costs to go to a larger heat pump for the coldest days of the year to cover its heating needs, it makes sense to have that gas system there, and to provide peaking or to provide backup.

And that’s exactly what we need in the short-term, something that makes sense economically for the building owner, that’s going to have a huge impact on reducing emissions. And so, we don’t need a gas ban today. I think eventually we do need to completely decarbonize our buildings. But today, we need solutions that make sense economically and then also going to get those huge emissions reductions as well.

And so, hopefully, this will grow in terms of general public awareness as well as media coverage. And I think we have really been seeing that in the past year, and hopefully that continues because it’s something that hopefully everyone is thinking about when it comes time to replace their hot water tank or their furnace or their heating system, their large building. And they are aware of the trade-offs and the pros and cons of the different systems and they are thinking about what can I do to make a difference.

Kamal Kapadia [47:16]: Thanks for that Micah. And I think you make this important point that people often miss that, sometimes it’s just that the last 10% that’s really expensive, and so you can get to that 90% and you shouldn’t let the 100% be the enemy of the 90%. And it sort of reminds me of this recent report that came out in the U.S, the 2035 report that was led by Amol Phadke at the Lawrence Berkeley lab and his team, where they found that for the whole electricity system in general in the U.S, you can get up to 90& clean energy by 2035. So, that’s really soon, and you know, it’s a much more ambitious goal than people have been traditionally talking about. So, you can get that by 2035 if you aim for 90% and you can do it more cheaply than current rates of electricity. So, you can actually reduce the cost of electricity, and get up to 905 clean energy. And it’s that last 10% that we can sort of begin to plan for that, but we shouldn’t let it be the thing that holds us up. And it seems like the same is true in green buildings as well. And that’s just an interesting story that the media could maybe emphasize a little bit more, especially as we are talking about all this infrastructure that we already have, gas infrastructure and potentially using it as a transition for a while.
Kamal Kapadia (48:30):Just going to ask one last question because I’m a little bit conscious of time. You know, just ending on a more personal note, coming at it from the perspective of climate smart buildings, but also just all the other issues we touched on today, the intersection of climate action and equity and your own personal work experience, what would your call of action be to our listeners? Just giving you a sense that you know, our listeners, they come from all over the world, and they are all really interested in taking some kind of climate action both professionally and personally.

Micah Lang [49:07]: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I think, the first half of my answer will be just to reiterate and emphasize what you just said Kamal, this opportunity we have to decarbonize our built environment, is one that doesn’t have to be painful from an economic perspective and actually could be beneficial in many instances, and focusing on how we get these deep reductions. We don’t have to go to zero tomorrow, we need to do something that is going to have huge reductions and make sense for each building that we are talking about. And as you mentioned, getting the 80% or 90% can be cost effective, whereas getting to 100% right now doesn’t make sense, but we can get there eventually. And so, focusing on the opportunities in the short-term from a carbon reduction perspective is really important.

And on a personal note, as we work to try and address these three global emergencies that we are facing right now, it’s really important that those of us who are in a position of privilege, who are either, because of the position we have in our job or who we are individually, in society. Myself, I find myself in quite a position of privilege being a white male, working in a stable job, getting to influence policy and government. Like, there is a lot of privilege that comes with that.

So, you need to really recognize that, and to make an effort to reach out to groups and involve groups that have not benefited in the past and are not benefiting from the policies and investment and the money that is flowing within the green building industry. And so, sort of a challenge that our green building team in Vancouver has set for ourselves for this year is to reach out to a group or individuals in the local community that you don’t have a connection to, that we’ve not worked with before, and to develop a relationship with them, and use that to strengthen and broaden our work in this area.

We really cannot say that we’re addressing the climate crisis in an equitable manner and in a manner that’s going to benefit all residents, if we don’t have those connections and if we’re not building a big enough tent to have a meaningful conversation and dialogue.

And so, I think I would challenge folks to broaden your social network, both professionally and personally and to think about how you can incorporate more ideas and more people into your work.

Kamal Kapadia [51:44]: I really love that suggestion Micah. I love this idea of, especially using this sort of pandemic time to step back a little and think about important relationships, and how you could potentially build new important relationships. I really, as a sort of concluding note, I live how we found so many intersections between green buildings work and the project of advancing equity. Because like you, I firmly believe we have to see these issues through an integrated lens because they are so deeply connected. And it’s really heartening to hear about everything that’s going on in Vancouver around this and in Canada more generally, and also just understand that a lot of global potential for more of this kind of work.

It was really interesting to hear about the technology side of things and the fact that there is always innovative financing available now that the private sector can avail of, and also create local employment through that project. So, lots of ways in which the project and policies of advancing green buildings are just kind of integrated and connected to just broader goals as a society.

So, I really appreciate you sharing all your insights. And also, just so supercool to reconnect with an old friend and to hear all about your work and about all these other initiatives that are going on as well.

So, I wanted to say great, big thank you on behalf of Terra, and we wish you all the very best in this really important work.

Micah Lang [53:25]: My pleasure Kamal, really great to talk to you as always.

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About the speaker

Terra.do

Terra.do is a climate school and community founded in 2020, set on a mission to get 100 million people working to solve climate change by 2030.

Terra.do is a climate school and community founded in 2020, set on a mission to get 100 million people working to solve climate change by 2030.

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