Greening government: how Canada plans to achieve net zero public services

By on 30/05/2022 | Updated on 30/05/2022
Landscape photo of Canada's capital city, Ottawa, featuring a church spire, buildings, a river and mountains.
Ottawa: the Government of Canada has already met its goal to reduce its real property and conventional fleet emissions by 40% by 2025. Photo by DEZALB via Pixabay

Governments around the world are racing to slow climate change, setting targets to limit emissions and decarbonise economies. But as significant polluters in their own right – through their internal operations and through procurement and supply chains – what are they themselves doing to go green? During a GGF webinar, two public servants shared Canada’s plans, and its lessons  

Canada has set targets to lower carbon emissions by 40%-45% by 2030 and, in line with the Paris Agreement, to reach net zero by 2050. As the country’s largest asset owner and public procurer – it owns 32,000 buildings, 20,000 engineering assets, a fleet of 40,000, and procures over C$18bn worth of goods and services every year – the government recognised that it needed to think seriously about ways to reduce its own carbon footprint.

As Nick Xenos executive director of the Centre for Greening Government explained during the webinar, the Government of Canada is “conscious that to take climate action also means to take action within its own operations… we need to show leadership and set an example of how we can get to net zero”.

As such, it launched its Green Government Strategy (GGS) and, to help departments implement it, created the Centre for Greening Government.

The Centre resides within the Treasury Board Secretariat – the administrative branch of the Treasury Board of Canada, a Cabinet committee that oversees the federal government’s spending and operations and employs its public service. “This is an interesting lesson for governments anywhere,” Xenos said. “If you’re going to have a strategy to green the government’s operations, it makes sense to attach it to somewhere that’s close to procurement policy, property policy, and fleet management policy.”

One of the Centre’s core responsibilities is to track the government’s emissions. “What we do is to find that information, be transparent and open about it, and then target the biggest sources of emissions,” Xenos said.  

In 2020-21, the Canadian government emitted an estimated 3,228 kilotonnes (kt) of carbon dioxide through procurement, 692kt heating and cooling its buildings, 511kt operating its military aircraft, and 328kt through its employees’ commutes to work, for example.

Ambitious plan – and a raft of targets

To reduce its impact on the environment, the government has set itself a raft of targets. These include buying 100% clean electricity by 2025 – currently 87% is from zero carbon sources; diverting 75% of its operational waste; eliminating single-use plastics; and disclosing the embodied carbon in construction materials with the aim of beginning to reduce it by 30% from 2025.

The Centre is working with the defence department, coast guard, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police to develop a fleet decarbonisation plan by 2023 and has created a fund – C$337m – to buy low-carbon fuels for its air and marine divisions.

In addition, it requires that any new government building be net zero and climate resilient – it currently owns over 200 net zero buildings – while for retrofits, it uses a carbon shadow price of C$300 per tonne “because we want to make sure every retrofit of every building is as deep decarbonise as possible,” Xenos said. He pointed out that missing the opportunity to retrofit an older building with greener plant and materials will have a negative knock-on effect in the race to reach its 2050 target.  

Through these and other initiatives, the government has already met its goal to reduce real property and conventional fleet emissions by 40% by 2025.

Nick Xenos

The government is also encouraging flexible work arrangements for its workforce – in part to cut down on commute-related emissions – and the use of low-carbon transport. And it has established the Greening Government Fund whereby departments are charged the carbon price on their air travel emissions with the resulting fund, which is managed centrally, redistributed to departments to fund green projects.

Perhaps most ambitiously, though, it is aiming to achieve net zero procurements, in part by incentivising major suppliers to disclose emissions and sign up to the Science Based Targets initiative.

All of this is underpinned by the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, made law in summer 2021, which sets out the government’s climate targets alongside oversight mechanisms. It includes a timetable for progress reports, requires the finance minister to prepare an annual report on financial risks and opportunities associated with climate change, and mandates the creation of an independent advisory body tasked with providing advice on emission reduction plans and target setting.  

The government publishes its emissions and progress by department. “It’s a nice way for departments to compare their progress against others,” Xenos said.

Importance of learning from overseas

What is also important, Xenos said, is to “work with others to see what we can learn. That’s why forums like this are so important… what are the best practices out there?”

In line with this, Xenos co-chairs a forum with crown corporations – arm’s length federal entities such as Canada Post – to help them green their operations and participates in a ‘community of practice’ between Canada’s provincial and territorial governments. The government “cooperates and coordinates” with other large procurers in a group called Buyers for Climate Action, so they can learn about what each other is doing. And internationally, Xenos co-chairs a group called the Greening Government Initiative with his counterpart in the White House Council on Environmental Quality. It is, he said, the “first global community of practice for leaders in charge of greening their government operations… We’ve got over 40 countries that have joined and endorse it and participate”.  

The aim is to “increase the velocity of our initiatives; lever global best practices; accelerate experimentation and sharing of information; strengthen the foundation for industry cooperation; amplify communications to signal to the market that we’re all moving in this direction; and then of course, to inspire and help members and non-member nations to keep improving,” Xenos said.  

As he put it: “If everybody thinks everybody’s going to go to the high school dance, we’re all going to the dance. So we’re all going to the zero carbon dance, and how do we get there together?”

The webinar’s second panellist was Thierry Spiess, senior manager, Advanced Vehicle Program at National Resources Canada. Spiess said he was “in awe” of the breadth and variety of Xenos’ team’s mandate and the “multifaceted approach when it comes to greening government operations… the magnitude and scope is just really mind boggling”.

Reducing the federal fleet’s carbon footprint

As for his own work to reduce the government fleet’s carbon footprint, Spiess noted that combined, its road vehicles emit 47kt of carbon annually, or about 4.5% of government operations emissions.

The Greening Government Strategy initially required 75% of new conventional fleet vehicle purchases to be zero emission but the government has since pushed this further, committing to ‘electrify’ the entire federal fleet of light duty vehicles by 2030.  

In the 2022 Budget, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) was allocated an additional C$2.2m over five years to continue what Spiess called “the great work that we do” in informing federal departments and agencies how best to reach the targets, including through its green fleets programme.

“We do this in a number of ways,” Spiess said – through undertaking fleet and building readiness assessments, providing best practice guidance, and through ad-hoc pilots such as one focused on conversion to zero emission pickup trucks.

He explained that the vehicle suitability assessments consist of “use of telematics-based monitoring and vehicle usage pattern analysis to identify which fleet vehicles are best suited to be replaced with zero emission vehicle alternatives based on the anticipated total cost of ownership, the range capability, the operational requirements of that fleet and so on”. For this, a telematic logger, or dongle, is plugged into vehicles and collects data over a period of 8-12 months to capture usage across Canada’s seasons.

The result “is a report which summarises the characteristics of the fleet’s utilisation profile and identifies which vehicles could be replaced with lower carbon options. We then look at which vehicles are available in the government motor vehicle ordering guide,” Spiess said.  

Thierry Spiess

So far, NRCan has assessed nearly 3,500 vehicles across 17 departments and agencies and recommended that just shy of 1,200 be replaced with hybrid or zero emission alternatives. According to Spiess, this translates to over 1m litres of fuel saved annually, equating to around 2,610 tonnes of carbon reductions potential, and an estimated C$10m cost saving which, he said, “is quite remarkable”.

Last year, 33% of all light duty vehicle purchases were hybrid-electric and 13% zero emissions. To date, green vehicles make up about 8.5% of the government’s conventional fleet of light duty vehicles.  

As for the building readiness assessments, Spiess outlined a pilot which involves undertaking electric vehicle (EV) readiness assessments for federally owned buildings – comprehensive reviews of a facility’s existing electrical service, its spare capacity, its demand profile, and its low profile – with the aim of determining how may electric vehicle chargers are needed and what upgrades are required before they can be installed.

“Departments have been really stellar at implementing our recommendations,” he said. “They have bought more than 1,100 hybrid-electric vehicles and 450 zero emission vehicles over the past four years, and installed more than 230 EV chargers.”

The biggest barriers – and clean but not so green?

During the webinar’s Q&A session, Xenos and Spiess were asked by a member of the audience what the biggest barriers were for civil and public servants in meeting their governments carbon reduction targets.

In Xenos’s opinion, the two biggest barriers are funding and the technical knowledge needed to make the required changes. “The natural thinking is ‘it’s going to cost a lot of money and be technically hard to do’. What we’ve tried to indicate is that actually it’s not going to cost that much, if anything, over the lifecycle of a product and that technically it’s doable, especially with today’s technology – though in some areas we still need an evolution in technology.”

On the cost front, Xenos conceded that while an electric vehicle, for example, will cost less over its lifecycle than a traditional fuel one, it costs more upfront. “So really, it’s a question of how you move maintenance and operating costs to capital. There are various ways to do that in government.”

Another question centred on whether climate change was a priority for governments. While Xenos said that it is “probably the biggest priority for all of us”, he said relatively short-term events such as the coronavirus pandemic or the situation in Ukraine sometimes take precedence. However, he pointed out that the pandemic has been helpful in that it forced countries to focus on resilience and think about their supply chains in new ways, while the war in Ukraine has pushed governments to think more carefully about how they become energy self-sufficient rather than relying on another country’s fossil fuels. “A lot of those lessons can be ported over to resilience to climate change,” he said.

Spiess’s response was that while spending on the COVID health emergency and associated relief payments had taken resources away from governments across the globe, including Canada, the economic stimulus packages that had come about as a result of the pandemic – America’s Build Back Better, for example – “had equally resulted in historic investments in green and clean technologies and helping the workforce adapt to this new reality”.

Many of those who watched the webinar live were keenly aware that clean alternatives aren’t always as green as they may first appear – carbon is generated from the production of electric vehicles, for example, the batteries in particular, and decommissioned vehicles create waste. Questions around these issues brought to light how almost every green solution has a negative side effect that needs to be addressed and negated.

Talk turned to whether, as governments ramp up their efforts to cut carbon emissions, citizens would need to accept a reduced standard of living.

Not in Xenos’s opinion. He explained that an electric car is a better drive than a traditional fuel vehicle and that a heat pump heats a house better than a natural gas furnace. “We’re adopting this stuff because it’s better… I don’t think our standard of living will suffer. I actually think it’s the opposite.”

Ask what you can do to help – and share the lessons far and wide

The webinar ended with a question about what public and civil servants can do to help government meet its climate goals.

Spiess’s advice was to talk to procurement officers about green procurement, get familiar with EVs, and to share experiences and learn from others.

Xenos, meanwhile, pointed to an earlier question from one member of the audience, Jeff, about what could be done to make the process of compiling the census – which involves the hiring of thousands of temporary staff and associated travel, the opening of temporary offices, and “tonnes of paper” – greener.

“Do exactly what Jeff did and ask how you can green your own operations,” Xenos said. “In anything you do as a public servant, and in anything you’re delivering, [think about] how climate change is going to impact your operations, the services and the assets you run… You have control over what you deliver and what your programme is and you can make decisions on how to green those.”

Demonstrating the willingness of the Centre for Greening Government to help all areas of government to up its game, Xenos said: “Jeff you can call me. We can chat more.”

Clearly, the Government of Canada has thought very carefully about how it is going to reach net zero by 2050. Crucially, it believes it will have a better chance of success by sharing its lessons both internally and with international governments and, equally, by learning from others. So, for anyone who wants help greening their own government operations, give Canada a call.

The Global Government Forum webinar ‘Green to go’ was held on 3 May. You can watch the 75-minute webinar on our dedicated event page.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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