No Green for Green

Much-Touted Subsidies Might Just Cover Taxes

Alex Roslin
Business Observer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

When my wife and I started thinking about getting our own house, we had visions of a fun, green-friendly eco-home. Perhaps we’d live in a yurt, or some little abode suspended in the forest that we could swing to on vines like Tarzan and Jane.

We had heard the government offered subsidies for green building. At the home fair, we collected shiny brochures from enthusiastic civil servants who assured us they could help with our dream.

Then we read the brochures. The much-touted subsidies turned out to be barely enough for vines, let alone green features like solar heating, energy-efficient appliances, green-friendly building materials or better-insulated windows, walls and roof.

In fact, green-building subsidies in Canada are so pitifully small, they’re typically just about enough to pay for the taxes on a green-construction project, says Emmanuel Blain-Cosgrove, a Montreal ecological-building consultant.

And they do little to convince anyone to build green who wasn’t already planning to do so, effectively making them little more than subsidies for well-off people.

You may wonder why this is important. Why should society help a few tree-huggers who want to live in their silly eco-homes?

The fact is, there’s no better place for governments to spend our climate-change dollars. Building construction and maintenance is responsible for 40 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada. And scientists agree the building sector is by far the industry where there’s the biggest bang in efforts to reduce gas emissions.

Each $100 invested can cut 5.3 to 6.7 tonnes of emissions in the building sector, compared to 2.4 to 4.7 tonnes in the energy-production sector and 1.6 to 2.5 tonnes in better transportation technologies, according to the United Nations’ Nobel-winning International Panel on Climate Change.

So what kind of leadership is on display in Ottawa and Quebec?

Not much. Amazingly, the feds don’t offer a single green-building subsidy for new residential construction. The rationale: Home owners don’t need subsidies because going green will create enough cost savings over the long run to pay for the extra up-front expenses.

How short-sighted can you get? Did anyone stop to consider that most developers set out to build as cheaply as possible and are justifiably worried that buyers won’t cough up extra money for a green house?

Or that most home buyers are going to look first at the asking price of a home—especially with today’s runaway real-estate market—and aren’t likely to be motivated by uncertain cost savings from green construction, which they won’t see for many years? Or that many home owners won’t live in a single house long enough to see the full cost savings?

In Quebec, things are a little brighter, with the province offering $1,500 to $2,500 for energy-reduction measures in new homes, plus another $2,800 from Hydro-Quebec toward an energy-efficient geothermal heating system.

The geothermal subsidy covers a decent, if minor chunk of the $25,000 to $30,000 cost to install geothermal heating in the average home, but here again, it’s effectively a subsidy for the well-off; geothermal heating doesn’t pay for itself in energy savings unless the house is fairly large—at least 2,500 square feet.

Ottawa and Quebec do offer additional subsidies for green renovations of existing homes, but those typically cover less than 10 percent of the cost of the project.

Other jurisdictions show how far behind the feds and Quebec lag. Municipalities in Alberta, of all places, have taken the lead in reducing or waiving building-permit fees to developers that get certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building program.

Some U.S. states and municipalities offer grants of $10,000 to $20,000 to builders of a LEED-certified home. Other municipalities like Vancouver, Calgary, Kingston and Ottawa have committed to building some or all new facilities to LEED standards, as have the provincial governments of B.C., Alberta and Manitoba.

Every dollar spent on LEED certification leads to long-term savings of $12 to $16 due to lower energy, water and maintenance bills and improved worker productivity and health from better indoor air quality.

Yet, in Quebec, no municipality has followed suit. Neither has the province. In fact, Quebec has dithered for years about simply upgrading its building code to a long-awaited, more environmentally friendly standard.

The next federal election could centre around Stéphane Dion’s proposed carbon tax, a regressive measure likely to fall most heavily on lower-income people. Why not focus instead on proven programs like green-building subsidies that have the added benefit of improving the places we live and work?

TAGS: green building, LEED, global warming, climate change, emissions, energy