Giving office buildings a longer lease on life

In 2019, Integral Group wanted to set up a new office in downtown Calgary. But they didn’t want to put pressure on the municipal landfill. So when they fitted out their 68,000-square-foot space in the TELUS Sky tower, they got creative.

Instead of drywall, they used cladding made from discarded crates. Salvaged fir moulding was repurposed into baseboards. Window samples formed a stunning feature wall. The list goes on. As a result, the project produced zero waste at no extra cost, thanks to the savings on landfill and material fees.

Sustainable approaches like this are becoming increasingly crucial in the construction sector: the largest consumer of raw materials worldwide and the source of an estimated 40 per cent of urban solid waste. And there are important climate change implications as well, because harvesting and processing raw materials — from timber to cement — produces a significant volume of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“If we want to get to net zero, we actually have to think about the materials in our buildings and how we use them,” says Paul Shorthouse, managing director at Circular Economy Leadership Canada (CELC). “We don’t have to constantly extract new materials to build all the time.”

Partnering for circular insights

Partnerships are essential to better understanding the challenges and opportunities in the circular building space. CELC scoped out a project that brought together diverse players from across the construction and real estate value chain in order to explore the economic and carbon benefits that could come from extending the life of Canada’s 300 million square feet of office buildings.

“It wasn’t an easy task because a lot of this data doesn’t exist,” says Shorthouse. That’s where collaborations with CSA Group, industry, and federal government agencies — including the National Research Council and Natural Resources Canada — helped fill the gaps.

A consultant was hired to analyze different circular strategies, from extending the life of older buildings through adaptive reuse, to innovative leasing models, to exploring ways of minimizing construction waste by upcycling materials during renovation. Another consultant conducted lifecycle assessments (LCAs) comparing the carbon impact of retrofitting different types of office buildings versus demolishing them and replacing them with new energy-efficient buildings. (spoiler: retrofitting reduces GHG emissions in every scenario examined.)

Partnering with the Building Owner and Management Association (BOMA) Canada, builder EllisDon, commercial real estate firms including Hullmark and Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL), and other players across the value chain provided crucial insights.

In 2023, CELC published the findings in a first-of-its-kind Guide for the Real Estate Sector that quickly found a receptive audience.

Helping an industry hungry for solutions

Cutting carbon emissions is a priority across the industry. At the same time, the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we work, dramatically increasing office vacancies.

“The conditions are ripe for rethinking the use of our office building stock through upgrades, renovations, conversions and other creative forms of adaptive reuse,” CSA Group’s Ivica Karas told participants in a 2023 online webinar. “We just needed a catalyst. That is why we are very thankful to CELC.”

And as the report emphasizes, circular practices do more than reduce carbon emissions. Upgrading spaces to make them more energy-efficient leads to happier tenants and lower operating costs. Meanwhile, as the price of materials increases, renovating and repurposing buildings, rather than building from scratch, limits financial risks.

“The business case exists,” says JLL’s Hazel Sutton. “What we need to do now is just keep repeating it.” And not just for office buildings — but across the entire building sector and beyond.

Why farmers play a big role in fighting climate change

With fall harvest wrapping up, Kristjan Hebert stands amidst the stubble in one of his fields near Moosomin, Saskatchewan. But it’s another valuable “crop” at his feet that he’s eager to talk about: carbon.

Over the years, his 32,000-acre grain and oilseed operation has embraced many climate-smart practices, like using low-till farming keeps more carbon locked into the soil, adopting variable-rate fertility programs that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and planting fall crops keeps the soil covered with vegetation.

“My definition of sustainability is to leave my land, my financial statements and my industry and my community in a better state, generation after generation,” says Hebert. 

With over 150 million acres of agricultural land in Canada, supporting more farmers as they embrace similar approaches makes a big difference in the fight against climate change.

“Farmers are important stewards of the land,” explains Barbara Swartzentruber, a Senior Fellow at the Smart Prosperity Institute and Program Director at the recently launched Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-Food (CANZA). “As part of that, they are also important potential stewards of addressing climate change.”

Creating economic incentives

However, adopting new practices involves risks, costs and steep learning curves in a sector where margins are slim. This is why CANZA wants to help drive economic incentives that reduce these challenges. 

A global market is emerging for Scope 3 emissions: the indirect greenhouse gas emissions produced along a company’s supply chain. This will allow environmental benefits linked to certain practices adopted on farms to be monetized up the value chain, providing farmers new opportunities for income while helping the processor or retailer achieve their net-zero goals.

There are practical questions that need to be addressed. How can we ensure these markets are credible? How can we make them accessible to farmers?

CANZA is bringing together farmers, like Hebert, with major players in the agri-food sector and beyond, including Maple Leaf Foods, Loblaw, McCain Foods, Nutrien, RBC, BCG and the Arrell Food Institute. 

That’s crucial, says Swartzentruber, “It’s going to take real collaboration for system change.” 

Creating credibility and catalyzing systems-wide change

A critical component to making this work is verifying the volume of emissions being mitigated through farming practices, so buyers and their stakeholders know they are paying for real climate action. Right now, however, assessing soil carbon levels is an expensive and time-consuming lab-based process. Farmers need a much faster, accurate and cheaper way to assess how much carbon they’re keeping in their fields. 

CANZA launched its Climate-Smart Farming Initiative in 2023, partnering with the University of Guelph and University of Saskatchewan to test different options that allow farmers to assess soil carbon stocks in a reliable way. 

Ultimately, their goal is to identify, create and communicate measurement tools and methodologies that can be rolled out to different soil types, climates and crops across the country. 

The result will be more climate-smart farming practices and more environmental-based incomes for farmers, helping Canada’s whole agri-food industry transition to a net zero future. 

“I really do believe that we can be the solution that the majority of the world is looking for,” Hebert says.

Powering the EV revolution

The pumpjacks dotting Alberta’s landscape might not look like an entry point to the booming electric vehicle (EV) industry. But Liz Lappin sees things differently. When the geologist joined the Energy Futures Lab as a Fellow in 2017, she brought a bold idea: to make Canada a globally competitive lithium provider.

Lithium is a key ingredient in EV batteries. Currently, most of the world’s supply comes from either hard rock mining in Australia — a process with big environmental costs — or from salt lakes in South American countries with dubious human rights records.

But it’s also found in wastewater pumped from Alberta’s oil and gas wells, she explained, and new processing technology was being developed that could quickly separate it out. As a result, today’s waste product could play a valuable role in tomorrow’s energy system.

What started as a discussion of lithium quickly became much bigger. Canada also boasts significant reserves of many other critical battery ingredients — including nickel, cobalt, sulfur and graphite — providing an opportunity to create an extensive value chain.

The question was how to support the emergence of a new industry from the ground up.

Critical steps for critical minerals

“A lot of success, honestly, comes down to how you frame and position the work,” says Erin Romanchuk, Deputy Director at the Energy Futures Lab (EFL). Alison Cretney, EFL’s Managing Director agrees: “When you can help the system see itself as a system, you can spot opportunities, action them faster and create more impact,” she says.

EFL is a leader in bringing together diverse perspectives, encouraging participants to think beyond the status quo and co-creating solutions that work for everyone.

Working with EFL allowed Lappin to test ideas, iterate them and collaborate with staff and the community of Fellows. One of the results was the 2020 formation of the Battery Metals Association of Canada (BMAC): a trade organization that convenes key players from across the supply chain. BMAC then worked with EFL to establish a vision and national roadmap for the nascent industry.

The 2022 roadmap lays out strategic priorities, from catalyzing battery recycling markets to developing creative financial mechanisms to establishing public-private-Indigenous partnerships. A key pillar is bolstering Canada’s ability to process raw minerals domestically, instead of exporting them. And that’s where Western Canada’s deep experience in resource development could come into play.

Setting Canada up for success

Today, oil and gas is Canada’s number one export. Cars and automotive parts are number two. As global markets move away from internal combustion vehicles, both sectors are facing significant disruption, and the country needs new industries to fill the void. That’s where a robust battery metals supply chain could be transformative.

The key is making sure we do it right. “How do we create the conditions in the system where everyone can thrive — businesses and humans and the environment?” Romanchuk asks.

To help answer that question, BMAC is developing a Western Battery Hub and turning to ELF for strategic support. The Lab has been brought in to facilitate the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives, create a two-way learning space and promote opportunities for meaningful economic reconciliation across the value chain as it takes shape.

“It’s beyond just a net-zero system,” Cretney stresses. “It’s about equity and inclusiveness and ensuring future sustainability.”

What’s the future of plastic packaging?

There are plenty of reasons why we use plastic packaging on a daily basis. It’s affordable. It’s versatile. It can seal out water, moisture and light, protecting the product underneath. And because it’s lightweight, it cuts down on transportation, saving money and greenhouse gas emissions.

But far too much of it ends up in landfills or as litter on land and in our oceans. Meanwhile, microplastics are found everywhere from remote Arctic ecosystems to our own bloodstreams.

Alternative packaging solutions can bring their own disadvantages. They may require more energy to produce. They may be heavier, increasing CO2 emissions during transport. And when it comes to food packaging, non-plastic alternatives may allow the product to spoil quicker, wasting all the resources that went into its production.

So how do we reduce both the volume and the impact of plastic waste? It’s complicated but it’s possible. And that’s why the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP) exists.

Driving practical solutions

Today, the CPP is finding workable ways to reimagine the system, including particularly thorny issues like flexible plastics. “We want to keep plastic in the economy. We don’t want to see it in the natural environment,” says Cher Mereweather, the organization’s managing director. “We appreciate that it’s complex, but we are committed to working together, because wicked problems cannot be solved in isolation.”

The Pact brings together nearly 100 key stakeholders across the entire plastics value chain. They include major retailers like Loblaw Companies Limited, Canadian Tire and Walmart Canada; consumer goods companies like Nestle, General Mills and Coca-Cola Canada. There are companies involved in raw material production, manufacturing and waste management. And there are trade associations, environmental organizations, government bodies and academic institutions.

Together, they’ve developed a roadmap for creating a circular economy for plastic packaging in Canada, grounded in the latest data and informed by industry experts.

The latest version — set to be released in spring 2024 — lays out four key priorities. One is preventing waste in the first place by reducing, reusing and redesigning consumer goods. The second is optimizing the infrastructure required for reuse, refill and recycling systems through measures like standardizing packaging designs and investing in new technologies.

Another priority is making sure the right data is available to enable systemic change. This includes helping retailers better track the amount and kind of plastics going out their door, for example, and how much of it ends up as waste. Or it could mean understanding the life cycle of materials to ensure that potential solutions are actually effective. The final priority is sharing the knowledge and lessons learned along the way.

At the same time, the Pact is establishing “accelerator pods” that bring together key players and leverage strategic investments to develop and scale solutions, such as reusable and refillable alternatives to conventional packaging. “Because if you say no to something, we need other things to say yes to,” explains The Natural Step’s Sarah Brooks, who serves as an advisor to the Canada Plastics Pact.

Reimagining the entire plastics value chain for such a ubiquitous material is a huge undertaking. But for the CPP, the key is having committed partners at the table who understand what’s at stake and are willing to do the hard work. “That’s the power of the community,” Mereweather says.

Generating Innovation for Tomorrow’s Electricity Systems

Electricity systems around the globe are facing big changes, as the world transitions to net zero. In Alberta, we’re adding lots of micro-scale energy sources to the grid, like a dozen solar panels here and there on household roofs. We’re also cranking up demand, plugging in electric vehicles and running air conditioners more to cope with hotter summers.

That leaves the region’s utility managers with big challenges. “Today’s grid is over a hundred years old,” explains Energy Futures Lab ambassador Barend Dronkers. “[It’s] not sufficient for tomorrow’s needs.”

How can utilities integrate scattered sources of electricity into a grid designed for large, centralized generation? How can they manage growing demand — especially during peak hours — to avoid overloading the system? And how can they figure out quickly and cost-effectively which strategies work best?

These are critical questions, not only for Alberta, but for jurisdictions across Canada and beyond. While the answers will be different for different regions, what all jurisdictions need is a safe and collaborative space to explore them.

Since 2020, the Energy Futures Lab has been bringing together stakeholders from across Alberta’s energy sector to brainstorm solutions. One of the ideas that emerged — championed by Dronkers — was an AI-powered Grid Sandbox.

Providing the space and data to test drive innovation

The concept of this digital platform is to give utilities an opportunity to test different scenarios and strategies virtually, using real, detailed energy data from individual households.

For example, the sandbox could show utilities how the addition of electric vehicle chargers within specific neighbourhoods would affect the grid. Or model different energy saving incentive programs for households before investing time and money on real-world pilots.

Meanwhile, customers could run their own virtual scenarios, like assessing the impact of shifting laundry to off-peak hours or adding more insulation to their attic. The platform could also recommend ways to cut their energy use, tailored to their individual needs.

That’s key, since measures that make sense for a young family in a newly built townhouse might not be appropriate for a tenant renting a one-bedroom apartment or an empty nester in a century home.

Bringing together the right partners

Achieving that vision required meaningful collaboration. Software companies and AI specialists to write the code. Utilities to test the platform and provide feedback. Households willing to share detailed data about their energy use. Home energy audit software to generate baseline information.

Leveraging its strength as a trusted convenor across Alberta’s energy sector, the Energy Futures Lab helped forge the partnerships needed to develop and test a working prototype. That included teaming up with ENMAX — one of Alberta’s largest utilities — which piloted a demonstration of the sandbox with a handful of customers in 2021 and 2022. In addition, the RBC Foundation, through RBC Tech for Nature, partnered with the Energy Futures Lab on this emerging initiative.

Now, the project team is rolling out larger-scale pilots. And while those trials are taking place in Alberta, the results have the potential to help both utilities and users transform grids across North America and beyond to meet the energy needs of the future.

For Matt Mayer, Digital Innovation Lead for the Energy Futures Lab, it’s a perfect example of how the organization drives transformation. “Systems change requires creative mindsets,” he says. “It requires a sense of innovation. It requires different perspectives to come together to understand problems in order to identify meaningful solutions.”

How do we solve the Missing Middle?

How do we make a better life and a better future attainable for more Canadians? Twice a week, Mike Moffatt – who leads our work on affordable, climate-smart housing – joins co-host Cara Stern to explore the challenges and solutions for Canada’s middle class.

Catch all the episodes below.



We all want more value with less waste, but how do we square the circle?

Industries and global economies are embracing a trillion dollar opportunity to eliminate waste, improve productivity, and maximize value from our supply chains. It’s called “circularity,” and this short video gives you the 101.

Watch the Video and learn more at Circular Economy Leadership Canada.

Canada can’t afford to underinvest in nature. How do we close the gap?

Introducing the Nature Investment Hub, a new Solution Space designed to drive a fivefold increase in investment in nature, together with public, private, philanthropic and Indigenous leaders. Check-out this recent webinar to learn more.

Watch the Webinar:

How can Canada grow the world’s food supply, not its carbon emissions?

Meet CANZA, The Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-food, one of our newest Solutions Spaces. CANZA fosters collaboration across the entire food and agriculture value-chain to unlock Canada’s potential to feed the world with low-carbon agriculture.

Watch the video and learn more at