solar panel in forefront of city

What It Means to Plan for Net Zero

What governments and businesses can learn from Canada’s approach to reducing emissions

This post was authored by the Sustainability Solutions Group.


With the record-setting heat dome hitting the Pacific Northwest this summer and drought conditions plaguing the West, the climate crisis is top of mind for many in North America and beyond. These events highlight the urgency for action on climate change.

Critically, we already have solutions. We just need to implement them. This is the point underscored by the Roadmap to Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region, a study completed for the Government of Canada by our teams at Sustainability Solutions Group, RMI, and whatIf? Technologies. The study explores how the Canadian government can nearly eliminate emissions from its operations, including more than 2,200 buildings spanning 60 million square feet (5.6 million square meters) of floor area. The report also covers actions for addressing emissions from corporate fleets, district energy systems, and employee commuting.

We found that the Canadian government has a viable pathway to achieve net-zero emissions, create jobs, and save money—all by using existing solutions. Canada is implementing many of the findings in the roadmap through the Greening Government Strategy and the public services and procurement department’s Sustainable Development Strategy. We hope that businesses and governments around the world, especially large ones with thousands of buildings, employees, and vehicles, can learn from Canada’s approach.


Creating Jobs and Saving Money

Our analysis shows that the government’s net-zero transition would create 46,000 person-years of direct employment and 22,000 person-years of indirect employment. On an annual basis, the transition would create an average of 1,500 direct and 700 indirect person-years. The changes would also deliver improvements in air quality, more comfortable buildings, and increased employee well-being.

What’s more, Canada can do it all with existing technologies, while saving money. The roadmap outlines actions for transitioning away from fossil fuels, such as electrification of Canada’s fleet, retrofitting old buildings, and implementing greener building standards. These actions have the potential to save the Canadian government CA$900 million by 2050 relative to a status quo future.

To help other organizations and governments get started on a similar path, we’ve pulled out key insights from the project in a series of four articles.

  1. If we can standardize retrofit approaches, we can quickly decarbonize thousands of buildings.

Old, leaky buildings are a problem for energy use and the climate. For organizations with large building portfolios, this challenge is paramount to reducing emissions. And it’s a critical one for solving the climate crisis. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, buildings account for 36 percent of final energy use and 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

One-off retrofits, which are the norm in the building retrofit market, do not capture economies of scale. As a part of our roadmap development, we explored how industrialization and mass customization can take energy efficiency retrofits to scale. The first article in our series explores the implications of this proposal and the savings it could create.

  1. Combining electrification with deep retrofits can cut emissions without crashing the grid. 

Organizations are looking to electrification and renewable energy as a way to get buildings, energy systems, and vehicles off of fossil fuels. But fears abound that plugging too many things into the grid could overwhelm the system and lead to blackouts. Our analysis and modeling for the roadmap suggest that, by combining electrification with deep energy efficiency retrofits, we can stave off an increase in building-level electricity demand and limit demand peaks on the electric grid. In our second article, we explain how.

  1. Aging infrastructure is an opportunity for climate action.

Our work found that upgrading aging infrastructure is a cost-effective way to take climate action. More than half of the total federal building area in the Canadian capital will be classified as being in poor or critical condition within the next decade. With smart investments in energy efficiency retrofits, renewable energy, and district energy systems, the federal government can ensure that upgrades to these buildings significantly reduce emissions. The third article in our series breaks down this historic opportunity for climate action and renewal.

  1. We can reduce emissions by modernizing office spaces and changing how people get to work.

Getting to net zero requires changes in how federal employees work and move. The roadmap recommends the federal government accommodate teleworking from home and coworking, which can offer employees more flexibility while also reducing transportation emissions. Changes to working life during the pandemic have already shown us that this is possible. In the final article, we explore the implications of employee commuting changes, remote work, and space modernization on climate emissions.


Driving Forward

Across government, business, and society as a whole, we have plenty of work to do to realize a carbon-free future in the coming decades. As the Roadmap makes clear, governments and businesses have an array of decarbonization solutions available to them today. There is no better time than now to start putting these solutions to work.

For more insights on building a carbon-free future, sign up for the monthly SSG newswire here and subscribe to RMI’s weekly Spark newsletter here