The strategic role of municipalities

Canadian municipalities recognize the path to meeting their climate commitments must include finding ways to optimize building energy efficiency. In doing so, municipalities can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and join the global wave of local actors set on achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Stringent building energy codes are one of the near-term transformational actions local governments’ can use to achieve their climate change targets. Heating and cooling accounts for the largest proportion of energy use and emissions generated in Canadian buildings and building energy codes can help cut energy waste while delivering low-carbon buildings that improve the health, resilience, and livability of the community.

Most provinces and territories are expected to adopt the proposed 2020 model codes in the coming years. And the Tiered code framework within the model codes offers local governments a strategic opportunity to accelerate the energy performance of buildings in their jurisdiction. 

Use the adoption process to advocate for stronger codes through amendments and the adoption of upper tiers

Provincial/territorial adoption of the national model codes typically takes 1 ½ to 2 years. Given that the proposed 2020 model codes introduce a progressive series of performance-based steps/tiers local governments can use the adoption process to encourage senior governments to adopt the most energy efficient tiers available for their province or territory.

Municipalities can also use the adoption process to call for amendments that introduce higher performance energy efficiency measures such as mandatory airtightness testing, zero-carbon heating and hot water heating systems, or EV charging readiness.

Call for changes to top-down provincial/territorial policy frameworks to enable local governments to adopt upper tiers

Municipal advocates can encourage senior government to amend the provincial/territorial regulatory framework and enable local governments to adopt the upper tiers of the proposed Tiered code

The combination of a tiered approach to building energy performance within the proposed 2020 model codes and the realignment of top-down policy frameworks is a unique opportunity. Together, they can enable forward-thinking municipalities to adopt an energy performance tier that brings them closer to achieving their municipal or regional climate commitments. 

This approach could be applied at a regional scale. As used by adjoining municipalities to implement the BC Energy Step Code in lockstep with each other, “regional alignment” has helped ambitious municipalities to move forward on increased building energy performance together, while reducing confusion over which regulations apply to a given municipality.  

Set the bar higher with green development standards

Advocates can set the bar higher by encouraging their municipality to adopt enhanced construction standards. “Green Development Standards” (GDS) are an approach some municipalities have taken to go above the minimum standards of the provincially/territorially adopted Building code.

Through the permitting process, the municipality can choose to create incentives or reduce barriers to developments that consider the building site and its interactions with the community, deliver social and economic benefits, and prepare the local market for enhanced levels of building energy performance.

GDS have played an important role in allowing forward thinking municipalities to move ahead of provincial minimums. They are a key accelerant that prepares the building sector, and the workforce, to deliver high-performance buildings at scale. They also signal to senior governments that Canadian municipalities demand more stringent building energy standards than those built into the national model codes system.

Raise building performance standards through compliance

As noted in Efficiency Canada’s Tiered Energy Codes: Best Practices for Code Compliance, municipalities can support compliance by training building and inspection officials in design, building, and enforcement as well as by linking robust compliance reporting to any potential funding arrangements.

Stringent building energy codes – backed by compliance enforcement that verifies designed energy performance – ensure that building owners and homeowners are not left with higher operational costs, structural issues related to moisture, and other issues affecting occupant comfort and health.

Speak with one voice

The federal, provincial, and territorial governments are responsible for Building code development and Building code adoption, respectively, as well as complementary programs such as labelling and benchmarking. Nonetheless, municipal representation in these areas is critical to ensuring their interests are considered. 

Municipalities can amplify their voice, and effectively balance their interests with available resources, as a group. Full participation, speaking with one voice and leveraging limited resources to access expert advice in federal/provincial/territorial policy matters is critical to ensure municipal interests are represented.


How municipalities can lead in building performance


  • Advocate for changes to the provincial/territorial regulatory framework to enable  municipalities to adopt the upper tiers of the proposed tiered codes.

  • Go beyond code minimums and adopt green development standards.


  • Advocate for early adoption of the national model codes.
  • Advocate for amendments during the adoption process to introduce higher performance energy efficiency measures.


  • Leverage municipal networks to coordinate provincial/territorial adoption advocacy efforts.

  • Join together with municipalities and speak with  one voice.


  • Set building performance standards that target energy use, as well as operational and embodied carbon targets


  • Educate developers, builders, and inspectors to ensure the local market is ready to deliver NZEr buildings at scale

Leaders in building performance

  • Charlottetown’s Community Energy Plan defines the community’s energy priorities and long-term emissions reduction efforts as well as the expected benefits including energy cost savings, energy price and economic stability, reduced climate and health costs and improved well-being. Buildings related actions include incentives for meeting Passive House and Zero Carbon standards in new construction, in particular Multi-Unit Residential Buildings and municipal buildings. Complementary actions also include actively working with stakeholders to build capacity such that all new buildings are constructed to Passive House and Zero Carbon Standards by 2030 or sooner.
  • The City of Vancouver has laid out a path for high performance buildings that meet Passive House and Net Zero Energy certified standards to meet Vancouver Building By-law energy requirements, rezoning conditions, and also serve as applicable standards to qualify for a number of discretionary zoning variances. In addition, the Vancouver Zero Emissions Buildings plan emphasizes reducing carbon pollution from burning natural gas in buildings, reducing carbon pollution from heating and hot water, and building with lower carbon materials and practices.
  • The City of Richmond provides incentives through its building permit process to accelerate the uptake of single family and duplex Passive House developments. Along with the adoption of the BC Energy Step Code, Richmond has incentives for meeting new Passive House and Zero Carbon standards including permitted increased floor area, facilitated permitting and inspections, outreach and engagement, and a Passive House Density Bonus. The City also works with stakeholders to build capacity such that all new buildings are constructed to Passive House and Zero Carbon Standards by 2030 or sooner.
  • Saskatoon’s Low Emissions Community Plan guides decision making in the municipality through the lens of climate change. The plan provides a roadmap for emissions reductions through changes to policy and investments. This includes deep retrofits on municipal buildings, and within the next 4 years an electric and thermal energy consumption cap for new homes and ICI construction via a proposed municipal step code with 4 tiers (introduced in 2023) reaching an 80% improvement in EUI and TEDI of less than 15 kW/m2 by 2036.
  • Since 2010, the Toronto Green Standard (TGS) has required new buildings to meet higher levels of energy performance than the Ontario Building code. The TGS is administered by the City Planning Division and is implemented through the development approvals process. The TGS offers a significant development charge refund incentive for developments. The Toronto Green Standard (TGS) requires similar performance levels to Passive House for large buildings at Tier 4, the level to which all new large buildings in the city will be constructed by 2030. Municipally owned buildings will be required to achieve Tier 4 in 2026.
  • A Toronto Zero Emissions Building plan is also in the works that sets out an energy performance and GHG reduction pathway to 2030 zero emissions for five building archetypes typically built in Toronto. Implementation of the proposed targets for new construction alone would result in a cumulative total reduction of 30 Megatonnes of carbon to 2050. Toronto is also planning to have 100% of new buildings designed and built to be near zero GHG emissions by 2030.
  • Victoria’s 3.0 plan lays out a plan to create a Building Innovation Incubator to stimulate construction innovation for climate impact. The City’s Climate Leadership Plan also includes strategies and actions to reduce GHGs target efficiency upgrades to reduce emissions including cutting heating related emissions based on reducing, replacing and redesigning buildings to drastically reduce energy use and carbon emissions.
  • Halton Hills, ON has a Green Development Standard that acts as a flexible set of criteria designed to produce more sustainable and efficient development. The Standards are organized into three Checklists, based on development type: 1) Low-Rise Residential (four+ lots); 2) Low-Rise Non-Residential 3) Mid- to High-Rise. The Standards apply to applications for a Zoning By-law Amendment, Official Plan Amendment, as well as Subdivision/ Condominium and Site Plans.

This project was made possible with funding from The Atmospheric Fund (TAF)

© Efficiency Canada 2021

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