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Canada’s latest building codes don’t account for more severe climate

Ottawa is irresponsible for not accelerating the adoption of building standards that would make new homes more resilient to the harsher climate, the insurance industry says after a year of severe weather damage caused billions of dollars in claims.

Last year was the third-worst year for insured losses in Canadian history, according to Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc. (CatIQ), a consulting firm that analyzes data from meteorological and man-made catastrophes.

The latest version of Canada’s National Building Code does not take into account the more severe climate. And it could take until 2030 for the next edition to be implemented by the provinces and territories.

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“Waiting a decade to build new homes that can withstand floods, wildfires and storms is just not responsible government,” Craig Stewart, vice president of climate change and federal affairs at Insurance Bureau of Canada, said in an interview.

Codes set minimum standards for constructing safe buildings. Canada’s 1,530-page National Building Code is non-binding, but provides a model for provinces to either fully adopt or adapt in their own codes.

However, a recent survey of the state of building codes across the country by the Globe and Mail found that they lack measures to deal with the increasing frequency and severity of weather events such as floods, storms or extreme heat.

CatIQ says weather-related insured losses in Canada have increased from an average of $400 million per year in the early 2000s to an average of about $2 billion in recent years.

The most recent national code, the 2020 edition, was published in 2022. The next release will be the 2025 edition and will be close to 2030 until provincial and territorial adoption.

The federal government has already committed to making new homes more energy efficient, with a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2030. But Mr Stewart said it was wrong to prioritize energy efficiency instead of ensuring new buildings are built for the tougher climate conditions.

“They put energy efficiency ahead of people’s safety and we believe that needs to be reversed,” he said.

In the letter of mandate granted to him in December 2021, Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne was instructed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to publish Model National Codes that would include “net zero emissions” and “climate resilient buildings” by the end of next year.

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The Globe asked Mr Champagne for his views on the state of national codes, including whether he thinks net-zero emissions or climate resilience should be a priority.

The minister’s office said he was unavailable for an interview and issued a four-paragraph statement.

The statement didn’t explicitly say whether measures to make new homes more resilient would be a priority or be released by 2030.

“We know that we can always do better and we will continue to work hard to ensure that our buildings are more energy efficient and climate resilient,” the minister said in the statement released by his office.

The pace of code changes has been a concern for the insurance industry, which has seen an increase in claims due to weather events.

“This five-year cycle of updating building codes just isn’t workable. It’s not nimble. It’s very bureaucratic. It was designed for a bygone era,” Mr Stewart told The Globe.

Laurel Collins, the NDP’s environmental and climate change critic, said, citing recent weather disasters like British Columbia’s 2021 heat dome that has been linked to more than 600 deaths, Ottawa needs to take more concrete steps to update building standards.

“We are behind. Across Canada there is a patchwork of building codes, some decades behind. And we need leadership from the federal government. We need concrete investments in the kind of climate solutions and climate resilience that will make a difference for these communities,” Ms Collins said in an interview.

Mr Champagne did not respond directly to The Globe’s questions, but his office referred them to the National Research Council of Canada, the federal agency that assists the board of stakeholders updating national codes.

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In a statement from the NRC to complement Mr Champagne’s written comments, the agency said that following its recent overhaul, the draft code system should respond more quickly to new priorities, with provinces and territories now able to be involved early in the process.

“The development of model codes takes time to ensure input from stakeholders is incorporated and due diligence is exercised,” the NRC said.

The NRC said the 2025 edition of the National Building Code will include measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make homes more energy efficient. The explanation did not allude to making buildings more resilient to extreme climates.

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Ottawa mentioned its intention to update building codes when it released its first national adaptation strategy last November to make the country more climate-resilient. However, the government has not yet decided whether these code changes would apply to both private homes and public infrastructure.

Mr Champagne did not respond to a question from The Globe on whether he thought housing should be included in the adaptation strategy. His office forwarded the request to the NRC, which said it should be answered by Infrastructure Canada.

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The Globe also asked Mr Champagne how he felt about the fact that requests to change the code to make homes more climate resilient were made as early as 2013 but were rejected by the independent advocacy panels reviewing proposed changes. Mr Champagne’s office referred the issue to the NRC, which said it should be dealt with by the board overseeing the code drafting process.

With an account by Kathryn Blaze Baum.

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