How To Heat Your Home Without Heating The Planet

Brett Tyron has a great rundown in Chatelaine on why switching off natural gas is key to fighting climate change, is not more expensive (especially as the carbon tax rises), and will make your home more comfortable.

Heating your home with fossil fuels doesn’t just keep you warm—it creates emissions that warm the planet. Home heating is Canada’s largest source of residential greenhouse gas emissions. The good news: there’s a more environmentally conscious option that can help you save energy, shrink your carbon footprint, and build Canada’s resilience to a changing climate and fluctuating fuel prices. Here’s what you need to know about switching from a gas furnace to a heat pump—and why you should consider it.

How home heating contributes to climate change

When the temperature plunges, energy use skyrockets. Here in Canada, where the winters are long and harsh, home heating accounts for 62 percent of residential energy use. And most Canadian homes are heated with fossil fuels: in 2018, 52.5 percent of Canada’s residential heating was produced by natural gas. Along with coal, propane, and heating oil, Canadians burn a lot of fossil fuels for heat.

This creates tons of emissions. In 2018, Canadian homes produced 43.3 megatonnes of CO2 from space heating. The majority of emissions—61.4 percent—came from natural gas. (The rest came from gas, oil, wood, coal, and propane.)

Why “natural” gas is a potent greenhouse gas

Despite its innocuous name, so-called natural gas is almost entirely methane (CH4): a colourless, odourless, flammable gas. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has 70 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. And it starts polluting the environment long before it reaches your furnace. Canada, along with more than 80 other countries, just signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Canada’s major sources of methane emissions are activities that occur during upstream oil and gas production. Some methane escapes from malfunctioning equipment like leaky valves or fractured well casings, resulting in fugitive emissions. Methane is also vented intentionally, like when a pipeline is depressurized before inspection and maintenance. Flaring is the practice of burning methane that is either unsafe because of contamination, or considered uneconomical to collect and sell. (This releases methane and emits CO2.) Oil and gas facilities are responsible for nearly 44 percent of Canada’s methane emissions and 26 percent of our total GHG emissions.

“[Natural gas] is really one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada,” says Julia Langer, CEO of The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a regional climate agency that invests in low-carbon solutions for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. “And all along the chain, from fossil fuel mining to the use in your furnace and water heater, that’s a contribution to climate change.”

The emissions from your home may not be as visible as the exhaust spewing out of a tailpipe—but they’re still causing climate change.

“It isn’t the emissions we see,” says Langer, “It’s the impacts. We’re seeing more forest fires, we’re seeing more floods and extreme weather, we’re seeing the heat-related deaths. We’re seeing the impacts of using fossil fuels coming home to roost in a more visible and visceral way for the average person.”

The importance of electrification

“There’s no path to achieving our net zero targets—which is what our climate needs—without electrification,” says Langer. “That’s because you can’t use gas or coal or gasoline or diesel (the fossil fuels) without making greenhouse gases.”

Canada’s electricity, on the other hand, is relatively clean. About 80 percent of the country’s electricity is generated from low- or zero-emission sources. British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Yukon get most of their electricity from hydro. Ontario and New Brunswick generate the bulk of their electricity from nuclear and hydro. Prince Edward Island is powered by wind. So unless you live in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, or Saskatchewan—which still get the majority of their electricity from fossil fuels—you can drastically shrink your carbon footprint by switching from a gas furnace to electric heating.

When it comes to fuel switching, the City of Vancouver is paving the way. City Councillor Christine Boyle worked with staff to develop the city’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, with the goal of cutting Vancouver’s carbon pollution in half by 2030. And in Vancouver, where 54 percent of the carbon pollution comes from natural gas heating, that means electrification.

“Because in B.C. most of our electrical power is hydro,” says Boyle, “Getting off of natural gas and onto electricity in this province is a really significant move in terms of reducing those emissions.”

As of January 1, 2022, the Vancouver Building By-law will require zero-emission equipment (like stoves, heaters, and hot water heaters) for all new low-rise residential, which is more than half of Vancouver’s new residential each year. And a report is expected this May, outlining steps for building retrofits. Homeowners replacing a gas furnace will likely need to switch to electric systems by 2025. Since a gas furnace can last ten to 18 years, the changes have to happen soon if Vancouver is to electrify its buildings by 2040.

“We’re looking at best approaches in terms of requiring fuel switching,” says Boyle. “The goal is to have all of those buildings electric because that’s what we need to do to meet our emissions limits.”

Read the full article at Chatelaine.

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