Claire Ewing, a summer 2021 Sustainability Scholar, now works as a Senior Policy and Planning Analyst with Metro Vancouver in the Air Quality and Climate Change Department. With a particular focus on greenhouse gas reductions for buildings, transportation and industry, Claire’s work contributes to the development and implementation of Metro Vancouver’s Climate 2050 Strategy. We interviewed Claire to learn how her experience in the Sustainability Scholars Program influenced her career journey.

All opinions belong to Claire Ewing and not to Metro Vancouver or any other governmental body or employer.

Can you describe what your Scholar's project was about?

My project considered the concentrations and distributions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from gas boilers, heaters, and generators of buildings in Metro Vancouver—particularly the potential impact of emissions on neighbouring buildings—and focused on how other jurisdictions address similar issues. Many studies observed there to be negative health and environmental impacts of NOx emissions, so we need to be careful about what we're burning and where and how we can mitigate exposure to emissions for our health.

Currently, Metro Vancouver doesn’t have rules dictating where a building’s stacks can be placed relative to another building. This could result in the emissions being let out by one building flowing directly into another building. Making such rules is not directly within Metro Vancouver’s jurisdiction—building codes are mandated at the provincial and municipal levels—but Metro Vancouver could play an advocacy role. I looked at several jurisdictions across Canada, the US, and Europe and found that few jurisdictions have explicit rules dictating the placement of building stacks.

What were some notable NOx mitigating programs you learned about from other jurisdictions, and how do the Lower Mainland’s current mitigation strategies compare?

There are generally three major categories of NOx mitigating programs that have been adopted:

  1. Low and ultra-low NOx emitting equipment, which burns cleaner and has increased filtration capacity. California widely incorporates ultra-low NOx equipment. Metro Vancouver has some policies around implementing low NOx equipment, but these are not as effective at reducing NOx emissions as ultra-low NOx equipment is.
  2. Hyper-vigilance with data collection and monitoring (e.g., London and San Francisco). The lower mainland has air quality monitoring stations that read and record air quality, but these readings are not at a scale fine enough to determine the emissions being produced at the level of a city block or a specific building. Improving our data collection and monitoring programs would allow policies to be more targeted and outcomes could be more readily measured.
  3. Getting buildings to be zero emissions by switching to technologies that do not emit any emissions, period. These would be primarily electric technologies.
What might other jurisdictions learn from reading your report?

Seeing as this project was a review of leading jurisdictions’ policies, and builds upon what is already currently being done, the findings are applicable to regions beyond Metro Vancouver. Applications and recommendations from this report can be made worldwide because it contains a concise summary of actions that the most progressive jurisdictions are taking.

What’s interesting is that this work represents a relatively small subset of the whole building emissions story. From the suite of projects produced through the Sustainability Scholars program, I had friends working on a variety of topics ranging from materials recycling to the embodied emissions of buildings. My project’s focus was just one piece of the puzzle within the operational span of a building’s lifecycle. Each and every piece is so incredibly valuable because they are all interrelated and affect one other.

Why might implementing recommendations from studies like yours help with mitigating the climate crisis?

Undergoing this project felt like working as a consultant. You can do your work and provide your recommendations, but ultimately what happens with that knowledge is out of your hands; whether anyone puts your work into action isn’t entirely in your control. As such, it’s helpful to ensure that everyone you come across that might find your work relevant, gets eyes on it. Once I had completed my report, I really appreciated that my mentors believed that the Department of Air Quality and Climate Change at Metro Vancouver would also find my project results relevant. In that way, they helped cross-pollinate this information with others. The final report was also shared with people I had interviewed as part of the project across 10 jurisdictions. Even if this report ends up only contributing to knowledge, it is still useful as a stepping stone for future explorations and discoveries. You never know who might read it and find it useful!

What do you think we should be doing more of in the Lower Mainland to help accelerate climate action?

Everyone is thinking about 2050 targets, and it’s great that there’s this shared timeframe in mind, but it would be helpful to have even more long-term thinking embedded in municipal planning processes. It’s obviously difficult to concretely plan around long-term sustainability because there are so many competing needs that also require long timeframe planning processes, such as the housing crisis and implementing climate adaptation measures. In other words, thinking more synergistically and intersectionally across the ethic of climate urgency, long-term planning, and equity is vitally important and we should strive to do even more of it.

Take this example, do we want to retrofit a 15-unit apartment building that was built in the 30s with better appliances, materials, and equipment (e.g., insulation and windows) to make it greener? In short, yes. Going that route would be the “climate emergency” thing to do that can be accomplished within a year or two and drastically cut emissions. However, an alternate route could be to think about how we can expand the capacity of that lot to house more units (densify). Whether that plot of land is close to amenities and work should also be considered as the more individuals that can be housed there, the fewer that may need to drive their cars to work and leisure activities. Also, in this equation is equity and access, and centering decisions on equitable outcomes. The transportation version of this notion is that there is currently a huge push to adopt zero emissions vehicles. That’s great, but we should also be thinking about why so many people feel the need to own a car. I think Metro Vancouver is doing a good job of supporting decarbonization of vehicles while encouraging active transit and planning smarter neighbourhoods. But we also need to think about fixing systems at the source of the issue.      

Could you describe the work you currently do at Metro Vancouver?

I currently work as a Senior Policy & Planning Analyst with the Department of Air Quality and Climate Change. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades working on a bunch of different projects derived from the Climate 2050 Roadmaps, which are trying to get us to net zero emissions in the region by 2050. Some of the main items we work on center around building, transportation, and industry emissions. We collaborate and contribute on projects with other departments in a lot of different ways. Mostly, I do a lot of the heavier lifting with data analysis and data wrangling. 

What impact (if any) did working on your project have on your career?

My Sustainability Scholars project was fundamental in getting my job at Metro Vancouver. I presented my report to individuals from the Department of Air Quality & Climate Change, where I now work, as well as Environmental Enforcement and Regulation, the department I worked for during the project. Because I presented my report to Air Quality & Climate Change, they already knew who I was when I applied, and I got to interview with some of those same people. During my project, I got to learn about Metro Vancouver as an organization and their climate goals. Some of  the work that I do also draws on information that I know now because of my Scholars project.

Have you been using the project learnings in your current work?

Yes. Generally, knowing about building operations and building sustainability has been an asset as it was not something that I knew much about prior to working on the project. My Masters thesis was about the enforcement of air pollution laws across Canada, which concerned ground-level pollution from industry, mostly—not emissions from buildings, such as residences. Therefore, my project helped me get through that steep learning curve. My project was also valuable in helping me understand Metro Vancouver’s role in the region, and who has jurisdiction over what. 

What did you enjoy the most about your experience as a Scholar?

A lot of Scholars go into projects with the intention of finding more permanent jobs, which I was open to and interested in pending my experience. Since I loved working at Metro Vancouver over the course of my project, I knew it would be a good fit for me long-term. I’m so grateful that I landed in such an applicable place for what I’m interested in and what I see as my goals, and feel like I provide value to my team and to the region. I also really loved working with my mentors. I’m still close with them and occasionally work with them a bit on some projects. I’m fortunate to have gotten along with them really well, so it was nice to be in this new space of working full time and to have some familiar faces close by. Additionally, interviewing individuals at other jurisdictions was really interesting and a fun way to connect with people. They also acted as informational interviews for me! I got to know what other people worked on around the world.  

Can you elaborate on how this experience contributed to your growth in subject knowledge? Personal development? Applied/technical skills development?

I got to hone my interviewing skills. I produced an interview guide, having read up on how to run a semi-structured interview, which I now recognize is a valuable skillset to have. Another valuable skill I honed was creating content for very specific audiences and goals. I learned how to figure out the audience as early on as possible so that my recommendations were as relevant as possible. This is very valuable in my work now.

Did you encounter any challenges? If yes, how did you overcome them?

What’s funny is that what my mentors thought would be a challenge didn’t end up being challenging. They thought that holding five to ten interviews would be difficult, and would have been satisfied if I had done one or two. But I overcame that and ended up interviewing ten people for my project. I did encounter some obstacles related to publishing interviewees’ names and positions, but I was able to coordinate with them and anonymize quotes as needed to make folks feel more comfortable sharing.       

What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned throughout the duration of your project?

The extremely wide variability in policies pertaining to buildings’ emissions stacking. Municipalities who I thought would have more stringent rules and be more advanced in this area weren’t, and vice versa. I also found that the battles that jurisdictions pick around stack placements were interesting.

I was also compelled by the policies that I don’t yet understand in other places. For example, in California ultra-low NOx equipment is widely used in buildings, but it is a sort of band-aid solution because although this equipment is better than low-NOx equipment, they still produce emissions and are a poor solution overall because these pieces are quite long-lived (20 to 30 years). This means that if a piece of ultra-low NOx equipment is installed in 2022, it is going to be there releasing emissions until about 2047 before being replaced by something electric (if then). This is not conducive to zero emissions. California seems to be a consistent leader in technology and sustainability practices in some areas, so I find it odd that several jurisdictions still entertain the incorporation of ultra-low NOx equipment in new builds. Still, I understand the difficulty of implementing electrification rules in some jurisdictions, and ultra-low NOx equipment is better than low-NOx equipment, which is better than no restrictions on NOx at all.

What advice do you have for students thinking of participating in the Scholars Program?

Firstly, do it. Also, try to get many people to look at your report before it gets finalized and published. Define your personal goals for the project early on. Do you want to network or land a job after your project? Do you want to develop your research or report writing skills? It’s valuable to have those outcomes in mind from the get-go. Everyone I’ve spoken to has had such great things to say about their mentors, in that they’re all trying to make sure that Scholars get out as much as they put in. So, the more that you can define what it is you’re trying to achieve to your mentors, the more they can help you work towards those goals.

For more on Claire's work as a Sustainability Scholar, read her report, Assessing Nitrogen Dioxide Emissions from Buildings: Learning from Peer Jurisdictions.