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Feature Writer
John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist and author specializing in urban issues, business, and culture. He has written for various publications including The Walrus, The Globe and Mail and Spacing. John has won numerous National Magazine Awards.

Smart buildings: how AI is slashing heating and cooling bills

With artificial intelligence analytics and wireless sensors, buildings are growing smarter - and closer to zero footprint

In the nerdy world of smart thermometers, every self-respecting tech geek knows precisely how easy it is to undermine the intelligence wired into these devices: Just press the manual override.

For several years, the so-called HVAC industry – heating, ventilation, air-conditioning – has been turning out increasingly sophisticated programmable thermostats with a range of features designed to allow users to adjust a home’s temperature automatically (including smartphone apps that let users make changes remotely). However, the promised energy reductions and related savings associated with the set-and-forget features go right up the chimney when an occupant decides the dwelling is too hot, too cold or too stuffy, and intervenes. Depending on the device, the settings may not revert, paradoxically enabling all the carbon-wasting inefficiencies these devices were meant to prevent.

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The Canadian artists creating a better world

Top creators are flipping the script by mixing environment and ethics into mainstream entertainment

In the mid-2000s, with gravel quarry operators moving aggressively to carve huge aggregate mines out of southern Ontario’s limestone moraines, folk singer Sarah Harmer recorded a song titled, simply, “Escarpment Blues.”

If they blow a hole in the backbone

The one that runs cross the muscles of the land

We might get a load of stone for the road

But I don't know how much longer we can stand…

Harmer grew up near Mount Nemo in north Burlington – a dramatic craggy outcropping on the Niagara Escarpment, which is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The damage being inflicted on the area’s delicate flora and fauna fired not just her indignation, but also her creative imagination.

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Race to the stars

Companies, regulators and investors are competing to get their hands on carbon emissions data from satellites.

Going back to his childhood, Stephane Germain, the founder of Montreal-based GHGSat, dreamed of figuring out how to pursue a career that combined space, technology and the profit motive. After completing his graduate work in engineering physics, he found himself drawn increasingly to both the world of commercial satellites and the scientific challenge of using specialized orbiting sensors to measure atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

But when the province of Quebec prepared to join California’s cap-and-trade system, “the light bulb went on,” Germain says. Cap-and-trade forces companies to buy credits for the right to pollute, which incentivises them to reduce emissions. Pondering the logic of such systems, he realized the province’s industrial emitters suddenly would be forced to manage their emission risk and therefore had a financial incentive to seek out better information about the carbon leaving their facilities. “I knew there was market demand,” he explains.

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Off to work

Making the commute easier for employees

When Québec’s financial services giant Desjardins decided to adopt a sustainability plan earlier in this decade, company officials began looking at a range of strategies, including programs to encourage the firm’s far-flung employees to get to work by means other than a private automobile with a single passenger.

It was an ambitious undertaking as Desjardins has hundreds of branches, head offices in both Montréal and Levis, outside Québec City, as well as satellites in Toronto and Mississauga, Ontario. Some locations are way off the transit grid while others are easily accessible. In a firm with 45,000 employees, the task demanded multiple solutions.

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Breaking the gas habit

Why a transition away from natural gas for home heating is both onerous and necessary

According to federal government data, fully two-thirds of all the energy Canadians use to heat their homes is supplied by natural gas and propane. For climate activists and building owners who want to decarbonize Canada’s building stock, that figure is, well, chilling. While natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels, this statistic alone offers a bracing reminder that Canada remains a long way from the day when our housing stock is no longer responsible for a formidable share of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

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