Trailblazers 2019: Pembina Institute's Karen Tam Wu pushes Vancouver to reduce carbon emissions from buildings

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      Finding viable solutions to specific problems is a hallmark of Karen Tam Wu’s life's work as an environmentalist.

      From the Great Bear Rainforest to the built setting of Vancouver, Tam Wu has always sought a balance between risks and opportunities. Such a thoughtful approach to sustainability is grounded in part in her UBC training in forestry, in which social, environmental, and economic benefits are measures of sound ecological stewardship.

      “My focus since forestry was on conservation, and it absolutely goes hand in hand in terms of ‘How do we manage the resource to ensure that we are having minimal impact on our environment but still have pragmatic economic opportunities?' ” Tam Wu told the Straight in a phone interview.

      Tam Wu is the B.C. managing director of the Pembina Institute. The think tank has been working closely with the City of Vancouver in advancing policies around green and low-carbon buildings. According to her, buildings do not receive as much attention as transportation, although the former generate more than half the carbon emissions in the city.

      One initiative that has generated a lot of international attention for Vancouver is its promotion of the passive-house standard, which focuses on insulation and airtight design to achieve energy efficiency.

      “Vancouver is definitely a major leader and has created a hub of passive-house activity, certainly in North America,” Tam Wu said.

      The Pembina Institute is also collaborating with the city on a project regarding energy retrofits for social housing.

      “Our existing buildings are going to be standing for decades more, and we really need to come up with more innovative solutions on how do we reduce our carbon footprint,” she said.

      Tam Wu used to be with ForestEthics, a grassroots environmental organization now known as As a forestry adviser with the group, Tam Wu worked with First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest in exploring conservation-based economic opportunities.