On the path to net-zero communities

June 25, 2017

When some colleagues and I set out to better understand the path to net-zero communities, we quickly understood we were missing something – a clear definition of what net-zero meant.

It wasn’t for a lack of definitions – quite the reverse.  There were definitions for building and communities.  While some definitions focused on carbon, others focused on energy.  Sometimes it was not clear what was meant.

So, we gathered as many definitions as we could.  We then asked: what should we consider in developing a workable and practical definition?  Four dimensions emerged.


Is the focus on energy use and generation, or carbon emissions or sequestration, or both?


Are we talking about buildings, communities or a region?  What are the boundaries?


What activities should be included?  What’s in and what’s out?


Do carbon offsets or renewable energy generated beyond boundaries count?

Accelerating the path to net zero communities

Embedding a clear definition in Ontario’s planning framework, will help us along the path to net-zero communities.  Our research proposes a nested approach that would allow for consistency between development industry policies and protocols, municipal energy and land use planning policies, and provincial energy and land use planning policies.

So, we used this approach to propose a definition for municipal and regional planning purposes.  We started with two definitions: one for carbon and one for energy.  We decided it made more sense to combine them.

Net-Zero Energy Emission Community

A net-zero energy emissions community balances energy-related emission from buildings (electricity plug loads, space and water heating), transportation (excluding long-haul freight and personal travel outside of regional boundaries), and municipal services (e.g. water treatment and distribution, wastewater management and waste management).  This is met through a combination of energy efficiency gains while procuring energy supply from sustainable zero greenhouse gas emissions sources, ideally generated with community boundaries.  Offsetting emissions are permitted only where alternatives are not feasible. The community is prepared to support “net-zero energy emissions” regions, by preparing for net-zero initiatives in the heavy transport and agricultural sectors.

We hope that what it lacks in brevity, it makes up for in clarity.