Skip to main content

Home Energy Justice Forum Proceedings Report (2023)

On April 12, 2023, Ecotrust Canada hosted Canada’s first Energy Justice Forum. Over 80 attendees came together in Vancouver, BC, on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Territories, and envisioned an end to energy insecurity, with a focus on British Columbia, where low-carbon home retrofits, energy affordability, and extreme heat resilience are increasingly seen as critical and holistic policy issues. 

This all-day event allowed policymakers to engage directly with impacted communities, subject matter experts, Indigenous organizations, and advocates. Together, the attendees reviewed the policies, actions, and initiatives that need the most attention to ensure that in the near future, all British Columbians will have access to clean, affordable energy, and safe, climate-resilient homes.

“Without intentionally considering equity in our approaches to energy cost burdens and energy efficiency, we simply won’t be able to reach our climate goals. This forum is a first step towards becoming aware of these inequities and then rolling our sleeves up to change what we do.” – Yasmin Abraham, President, Kambo Energy Group

Home Energy Justice Proceedings Report (2023)

The Central Issue

Having access to affordable clean energy should not be a luxury in Canada. Yet, a million Canadian households experience energy insecurity, also called energy poverty. This means families are suffering from high rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and mould-related illnesses caused by living in cold, poorly ventilated homes. In many cases, people must choose between paying their heating bills or paying for life’s other essentials. And it means these households are more vulnerable to extreme heat and a changing climate.

  • We believe that household energy security for all is possible — a Canada where all households:
  • can access essential home energy services like heating, cooling, cooking, and lighting without hardship
  • are able to live in comfortable, healthy homes with affordable energy bills
  • rely on low-carbon energy sources that contribute to healthy environments and help address the climate emergency
Houses and neighbourhoods in Prince Rupert, BC, on Coast Ts'msyen Territory.
Houses and neighbourhoods in Prince Rupert, BC, on Coast Ts’msyen Territory. (KELLAN RUSSELL / ECOTRUST CANADA)


Over 80 attendees contributed to the Home Energy Justice Forum. Top officials from Natural Resources Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health, and the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low-Carbon Innovation were among those in attendance. Participants at the Forum reiterated the need for cross-ministry and cross-government initiatives that are accountable for ensuring that everyone has a healthy, comfortable, and energy-efficient place to live.

Over 80 attendees contributed to the Home Energy Justice Forum. Top officials from Natural Resources Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health, and the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low-Carbon Innovation were among those in attendance. Participants at the Forum reiterated the need for cross-ministry and cross-government initiatives that are accountable for ensuring that everyone has a healthy, comfortable, and energy-efficient place to live.

For a full list of attendees, check out the PDF of the Proceedings Report here.

Maya Korbynn, UBC Sustainability Scholar, presenting on her research “The Missing Third: Improving Tenants’ Rights to Energy Efficient, Climate Resilient, and Safe Housing.” (SHANNON LOUGH / ECOTRUST CANADA)

Presentations and Panelists

At the Forum, we heard from over a dozen speakers, including two UBC graduate students who collaborated with Ecotrust Canada over the past six months to produce new research on equitable decarbonization of homes, and energy efficiency rights for tenants. After hearing from our expert panellists on these subjects, participants had the opportunity to workshop the ideas and recommendations that surfaced to refine them further and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. We found that there was a surprising amount of alignment around the path forward despite the very diverse backgrounds and fields of practice that attendees each brought to their tables. The themes and practices noted here were drawn from the notes of facilitated table discussions as well as questions and comments raised in the plenary by both speakers and participants.

Copies of workshop slides are available here

Video recordings are available here

UBC sustainability scholars’ research reports


Attendees were united in their call for more public investment and a ramping up of programs to retrofit and build affordable, safe housing in BC. They advocated for a human rights and public health-centric approach, one that directs public money to those who need it most, rather than subsidizing wealthy homeowners and landlords who have the means to improve their homes and buildings. Attendees spoke of a disconnect between the design model of existing retrofit programs, and outcomes that support equity. Many suggested that energy efficiency and retrofit programs should be designed and delivered by the communities they serve – or at the least, by a government or third-party agency rather than by utilities, who have historically failed to deliver meaningful results.

Participants were nearly unanimous in their calls to end subsidies for polluting fossil gas appliances, halt new connections to gas, and equitably phase out gas infrastructure. On the other hand, participants were also united in their support for electrification as the most cost-effective way to decarbonize homes and, with heat pumps, provide cooling during extreme heat events. A just transition strategy to retrain gasfitters as heat pump technicians could help to address labour shortages and accelerate electrification even further.

“It’s not just about improving the energy efficiency of homes, but making sure that people have a place they belong to, a place to call home that’s affordable and meets their needs.” – Abhilash Kantamneni, Research Associate, Efficiency Canada

In the afternoon at the Forum, we took a deep dive into tenants’ energy rights and different pathways to ensure that rental suites are affordable to heat, safe and comfortable to live in, and can be cooled during extreme heat events. While this is a relatively new area of policy development in BC, several possible pathways were explored, including regulating rental suites through building codes, the Residential Tenancy Act, and utility bill cost-sharing schemes between landlords and tenants. While opinions differed on the best way to reach this notoriously difficult-to-reach segment of the housing stock, attendees agreed that any policies or programs to improve energy performance must not lead to a loss of rental housing, or give landlords an opportunity to evict tenants and increase rents. Many participants also agreed that increasing the share of cooperative, non-profit and public housing might be a more effective pathway to tenants’ energy rights than incentivizing or regulating landlords, who typically see housing as an investment vehicle rather than through a human rights lens.

(Aditya Chinchure / Unsplash)

Workshop Session 1: Equitable Decarbonization

In this session, participants considered which policy pathways might be most effective, realistic or credible for achieving an equitable decarbonization of BC’s residential buildings stock by 2050, and what specific actions would be needed to make them possible. The following panel presentations and discussions informed this session (key research and resources linked):

Ideas were gathered into three categories:
  1. new practices to start
  2. current practices to end
  3. current practices to continue

New practices called for

Participants demonstrated strong alignment around initiating new practices in programming, regulation, and legislation in the retrofit industry and addressing energy poverty and equity issues.

Ideas concerning the energy efficiency retrofit-related industry focused on education and engagement. These include an electrification-oriented green jobs program, education specific to retrofits and home energy assessments, efforts to both encourage new members to enter the industry as well as retain quality professionals, and a system (as exists in the UK) to engage and incentivize contractors on energy efficiency. A need to strengthen supply chains and provide stability and long-term signals to the industry was also noted.

To improve equity outcomes, the need to include and prioritize tenants and rental units in energy efficiency regulation (such as rental energy efficiency requirements) and programs (such as retrofit rebates) was highlighted. There was a strong and recurring emphasis that any such measures would need to ensure that tenants would be protected from rent increases, evictions, or loss of affordable housing units resulting from upgrades. Programs specifically targeting multi-unit rental buildings were called for. More broadly, participants called for low-income utility rates, the right to cooling, and a federal low-income energy efficiency strategy, as well as pursuing zonal electrification.

Ideas for programming revolved around three key calls: 

1) Community leadership: 

Participants noted again and again that for programming to be effective and equitable, it needs to be designed and implemented by the community that it intends to reach. This would include, for instance, involving members of the target group in program design to ensure it meets their needs, and partnering with community-based and community-led organizations that operate in a culturally appropriate manner as program delivery agents. This would likely also address other concerns, such as lowering barriers to program participation, and providing targeted education (e.g., on heat pumps, or impacts on utility bill costs).

2) Integration and holistic approach: The integration and streamlining of programs were highlighted as a way to reduce the complexity of multiple points of contact and sources of information and funding, for instance, via a one-stop shop or the creation of an energy efficiency-focused agency.

Further, many groups noted the need to be more holistic in the approach to energy efficiency work, so that it takes into account non-energy aspects of homes and addresses safety issues, deferred maintenance, as well as housing stock deficiencies. This would require targets and funding that go beyond lowering energy uses and GHG emissions, and also cover outcomes such as climate adaptation, improved health and safety, and reduced operating costs to the occupants.

3) Better evaluation: Participants called for improved evaluation, in alignment with more holistic goals; improved transparency, including the accessibility of data to measure program effectiveness; and accountability to affected communities. Specific suggestions included monetizing all aspects of retrofits in cost-effectiveness evaluation (including grid impacts, carbon, risk, and resilience), and taking a life cycle cost approach.

Calls for new legislation and regulation included a national or provincial strategy for energy poverty with binding targets, a building alterations code for BC, and gradually applying GHG limits to all buildings (not only when altered). Further, a review of the Utilities Commission Act was proposed for better access to affordable low-carbon energy, to embed social and equity goals in the BC Utilities Commission’s mandate, and to require utilities to align their actions with provincial climate targets.

Desired financing mechanisms include a commercial property-assessed clean energy (C-PACE) program for multi-unit residential buildings, and a province-wide on-bill financing or on-bill tariff program from utilities. Finally, mandatory energy efficiency ratings and requirements were suggested.

Current practices to discontinue

Participants demonstrated strong alignment to stop the following practices:

  • Ownership of energy efficiency programming within utilities 
  • Working in siloes (calls for holistic, multi-government, multi-department collaboration instead)
  • Subsidizing wealthy owners/developers/investors with unfocused or regressive incentives
  • Restrictive strata policies (e.g., not allowing heat pumps)
  • Tenant displacement/renovictions
  • Insufficient, disparate data sets
  • Lowest cost bids in procurement (esp. for public projects)
  • Funding gas rebates, equipment and infrastructure, as well as new gas connections and natural gas industry disinformation

Current practices to continue

Participants were generally supportive of several practices, policies, and programs that are currently ongoing. Overall support was voiced for investment in communities, energy efficiency standards and retrofit requirements, raising awareness and communicating the multiple co-benefits of retrofits, and efforts to harmonize funding across programs and consolidate access points (e.g., Better Homes BC). Other current and appreciated practices include: District energy systems, support for jobs training and just transition, targeted contractor engagement and education (e.g., Red Seal / certified renovator system), as well as work to fill data gaps via field trials, research, and qualitative and lived experience data.

Support for equity and justice-focused practices found in public programs providing free or subsidized retrofits for income-qualified households and social housing, efforts to provide air conditioners as medical equipment, work toward a “right to cooling,” utility bill relief, equitable program designs, as well as education and information in diverse communities, languages, formats.

Support for a new climate-aligned energy framework for the Province with a strong justice component.

Attendees engage in the Workshop 1 discussion on “How does energy (in)justice show up in, or relate to your work?” (SHANNON LOUGH / ECOTRUST CANADA)
Attendees engage in the Workshop 1 discussion on “How does energy (in)justice show up in, or relate to your work?” (SHANNON LOUGH / ECOTRUST CANADA)

Workshop Session 2: Tenants’ Rights

This session focused specifically on ways to include tenants in efforts to make homes more energy-efficient, resilient, safe, and affordable. The following panel presentations informed the discussion (key research and resources linked):

“Energy insecurity, affordability, and justice is a vital, pressing issue for many folks across BC, especially those on low incomes. The right to heating and cooling, affordable energy for cooking, lighting, and other fundamental, essential household tasks should be assured. Yet, this is not the case for many in BC.” – Rowan Burdge, Executive Director, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition

Participants considered three possible pathways to improving tenants’ rights to energy efficiency and cooling in their suites: 

  1. Provincial regulations and building codes
  2. The Residential Tenancy Act and/or rental licences
  3. Utility cost splitting

All three pathways were presented as being accompanied by an energy efficiency retrofit support program with an affordability covenant to avoid rent increases and a requirement to involve tenants in the renovation planning process. The strengths, weaknesses, and potential unintended consequences of each pathway were discussed, and changes to improve each option were brainstormed. Key ideas are summarized in each of the pathways.

Pathway 1: Requiring energy efficiency and cooling in all homes through provincial regulations and building codes. 

This involves inserting specific requirements for energy efficiency, safety, and climate resiliency in the up-and-coming building code for existing buildings (the Alterations Code), as well as a planned introduction of cooling requirements for new buildings to the BC Building Code.

Participants identified multiple strengths for this pathway, perhaps most importantly its predictability and consistency across the province, providing focus and scale, enabling systemic alignment and bulk coordination in implementation, and addressing multiple provincial goals at once.

A notable weakness of this pathway is that building codes don’t apply to existing buildings yet. Weaknesses were also related to the all-encompassing scale of this approach, including potential difficulties such as stratifying it across the province, loss of nuance, making it hard to innovate, and equity challenges. Other weaknesses included the resources required for enforcement and compliance, financial difficulty in the ability to meet requirements, and the possibility of discouraging new entrants to the rental market.

High quality of new builds was noted as a positive unintended consequence of energy efficiency and cooling requirements being provincially regulated, while people losing homes was identified as a negative unintended consequence. Participants also noted that there are widely differing abilities to pay for upgrades among landlords, and that provincial regulation of this kind may lead to the formation of specialist (opportunist) job roles.

Pathway 2: Requiring energy efficiency, cooling and healthy rental suites through the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) and rental licences.  

This involves changing the Residential Tenancy Act to include wording on minimum and maximum interior temperatures, and including prescriptive requirements for air filtration.

Key strengths of this pathway included this being a rights-based approach that establishes a baseline, that the RTA already has an enforcement mechanism in place, and that it could also be combined with enforcement of other health and safety issues such as mould or pests. Participants also noted, as a positive, that this approach places responsibility on the landlord/owner and that it could leverage insurance policies.

Several of the identified weaknesses of this pathway centre on potential adverse impacts on tenants, including the possibility of renovictions (evictions of tenants with renovations cited as the reason) or of loss of housing if landlords choose not to comply, as well as the burden of reporting violations likely falling on tenants. This leads to another major challenge of this pathway – enforcement. 

The Residential Tenancy Branch is already overburdened, would require additional resourcing, and is reportedly hard to use. Opaque wording could make interpretation and outcomes unreliable, and further, access to justice is generally difficult or unattainable for the most vulnerable. Participants were also concerned about possible unintended impacts on utility bills and who is responsible for paying them (e.g., Landlord BC highlights shifting to tenants paying for utilities as a driver of MURB electrification), as well as impacts on lower-income landlords and their capacity to comply without raising rents. 

To address some of these concerns, participants suggested several changes and accompanying actions to this pathway. Regarding the Residential Tenancy Branch, participants called for an expanded mandate, including creating a peoples’ forum and taking a role in advocacy and awareness work, as well as better enforcement against mould, pests, and other unhealthy living conditions. More broadly, participants identified a need to improve baseline security of tenure for renters via a deeper rewrite of the RTA, as well as improved pathways to enforcement, arbitration, and remediation for tenants. Taking steps to ensure lower-income landlords can comply with new RTA requirements without raising rent, and implementing a licensing scheme for landlords was also suggested.

Pathway 3: Splitting utility costs in rental suites between landlords and tenants. 

This pathway addresses the split incentive problem by proposing a change to the Residential Tenancy Act that would tie the payment of utilities to the unit’s energy performance. Landlords would be responsible for the payment of utilities in inefficient homes, while tenants would pay for utilities in energy-efficient homes.

Participants found the strengths of this proposal to lie in its potential to create a strong, solid baseline on a provincial scale and potentially incentivize landlords to improve their suite’s energy efficiency voluntarily. They noted that such a scheme could combine well with on-bill financing if that were to be offered, as well as with net metering. It would require data availability, and a licensing scheme for landlords, to assess impacts and ensure compliance. 

Participants also noted that the spectrum of landlords varies greatly, that this idea may be more applicable to public housing, and that it would need to involve trust and collaboration to be successful. Overall, participants found that there are a lot of barriers and high risks, including renovictions, potential tenant selection discrimination, and increases in utility costs, resulting in overall weak support for this pathway.

Aside from considering the relative merits of the three policy pathways, participants noted that the financialization of housing presents a major barrier to approaching housing reform from a human rights perspective. The current barriers associated with the landlord-tenant split incentive are directly related to the use of housing as an investment vehicle and means of capital gains for landlords. Participants noted that an increase in cooperative, non-profit and public housing would be a more effective pathway to ensuring energy rights for tenants than attempting to either incentivize or regulate landlords to improve rental suites.

Chris HIggins presented on the City of Vancouver’s future goals to “to lead the energy transition in a less unjust way.”

Closing Session: Government Panel

  • Phil Climie in lieu of Pamela Wilson, Owner, Tagila Consulting and Former Chief Councillor, Heiltsuk Nation
  • Chris Higgins, Senior Green Building Planner, City of Vancouver
  • Nathaniel Gosman, Executive Director, Built Environment, BC Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Low-Carbon Innovation
  • Ben Copp, Senior Director, Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada

As the Forum drew to a close, we heard from government officials, who reflected back on the events of the day and recognized the call for a holistic, ambitious mobilization to end energy insecurity and provide safe, affordable and clean home energy as a key solution to the climate, housing, and health care crises currently facing Canadians. The entire room recognized that this effort will take a tremendous amount of time, money, effort and heart – and that no one agency can address these issues alone. Yet, we all recognized that the consequences of inaction – uninsurable, unhealthy buildings, illness and death, escalating bills and poverty – are untenable.

“In order to meet this challenge ahead of us and to create a built environment that is resilient, that is carbon-neutral, that gives us comfortable conditions to live in for the future and for years to come, it is going to require a national effort, and for governments and industry and communities across Canada to come together.” – Ben Copp, Senior Director, Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada

The Forum left us with a deeper sense of commitment to each other in our mission to pursue home energy justice in our communities. (SHANNON LOUGH / ECOTRUST CANADA)

Next Steps

The Forum left us with a deeper sense of commitment to each other in our mission to pursue home energy justice in our communities. Our planned next steps emerging from the Forum include a call to action by attending organizations, encouraging the government to bring BC’s Income-Qualified Program in line with Atlantic provinces, providing 100% cost coverage for heat pumps in lower-income homes.

“I’d like […] ideally get to a point where, if someone’s in an income-qualified home, they just say, “I want to put a heat pump in,” and then […] the utility comes, they install it, you get lower operating cost, and you don’t have to worry about having challenges.” – Chris Higgins, Senior Green Building Planner, City of Vancouver

We also plan to create a research and advocacy working group to explore the issue of tenants’ energy rights and rights to cooling in homes and workplaces. The Forum demonstrated this is a particularly complex issue, with many risks to consider, including the housing crisis, rising rents, and the prevalence of evictions and predatory landlords in BC compared to other Provinces.

“We saw amazing ideas and connections take shape at the Forum, and I’m looking forward to continuing the work with this group to turn our vision of energy justice for all into a reality.” – Dylan Heerema, Senior Policy Advisor, Ecotrust Canada

For Speaker Biographies, read the full PDF of the Proceedings Report here.

[Published August 24, 2023]