Exchanging Ideas on Climate
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
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True North: Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change in Northern Canada

1.0 Adaptation and Climate Change

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1.1 Making Adaptation the Issue

Climate change is real and upon us. Warming temperatures, changing rain, snow, and land ice conditions, melting glaciers and sea-ice, earlier springs, and shifts in the distribution of animals and plants toward higher and more northerly locations are all occurring. And Canada?s North is experiencing it first and most rapidly. Action now to arrest the discharge of more greenhouse gases (GHGs) into our atmosphere cannot remove what is already there. Evidence suggests that continued trends in global GHG emissions are very likely to result in large changes in our climate. The North faces more risk, not less.

Climate change has the potential to compromise our sustainable development goals, demanding action on two important and complementary policy fronts: mitigation and adaptation (see Figure 1). We need to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change by reducing economy-wide GHG emissions from burning of fossil fuels and by altering land-use practices to enhance forest and agricultural carbon sinks. This is mitigation. We also need to make technical, structural, operational, and behavioural adjustments that minimize the risks from the effects of climate change we are experiencing now and expect to later, and position us to take advantage of opportunities. This response is adaptation.

Too little attention has been paid to the positive outcomes of reduced vulnerability we can achieve through adaptation to climate change. Yet, a little can go a long way. The reality is, we adapt every day to climate-related events such as floods, forest fires, changing snow and rain conditions, and windstorms. Putting in place new, protective or precautionary measures such as early-warning systems, a floodway, or reinforced buildings are all part of adaptation. But to do it well, we need to understand what is at risk, what it?s at risk from, and what can be done about it. Climate change is creating a more intensive, deliberate impact on our environment ? built and natural ? requiring equally intensive and deliberate responses by governments, communities, businesses, and individuals. Adapting to climate change, not just limiting its magnitude and speed, is essential for communities and businesses to be secure in the decades of change ahead.

Preparing now for the impacts of a changing climate is wise from a number of perspectives. Regardless of successes in global GHG mitigation, the world may well be facing decades of warming. Adaptation is the only response that addresses the effects that are now unavoidable. In contrast to mitigation, which brings long-term global benefits, adaptation is primarily a local issue with the potential to yield early benefits.

FIGURE 1: Climate change demands two types of responses: mitigation and adaptation

FIGURE 2: A range of activities fall under adaptation ?mainstreaming?

Yet, despite their important role in providing the conditions and signals that enable adaptation mainstreaming, governments in Canada are only starting to seriously consider how they might approach this, what the barriers might be, and with whom they might need to partner. As a wealthy country, with a skilled and talented labour force, developed markets and institutions, technological advancement, and decentralized governance, Canada?s potential to successfully adapt to a changing climate is high. Governments? role in harnessing this potential is critical but remains largely unexplored. But, adaptation is more than adjustments in response to potential future climates; supporting strategies to adapt well to today?s climate and its variability also requires attention. Given the many risks that a changing climate poses, to our economy and environment, there is no time to waste.

1.2 The NRTEE?s Program on Climate Change Adaptation Policy

Recognizing the many economic, environmental, and social risks for Canada posed by a changing climate, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE or Round Table) embarked on a policy research program to consider climate change adaptation in the North. We focused the program on physical infrastructure in Canada?s North, and the potential to adjust existing risk-based mechanisms ? codes, standards, and related instruments (CSRIs), insurance, and disaster management ? to reduce infrastructure vulnerability through adaptation mainstreaming. In this way, we could combine a pressing issue -climate change- in a vulnerable region -the North- and examine known -risk-based mechanisms- to adapt to a changing climate.

We looked at Canada?s North because of the region?s unique vulnerability, with and without climate change, and the expected developmental impacts an expanding economy will have on this region?s peoples and communities (see Box 1). Northern Canadians are among the first to experience how changing climate conditions can be rapid, surprising, and more significant than the projections of the climate science of the day. Systems that support adaptation, such as institutions and planning mechanisms, are less developed and robust in northern Canada than in other parts of the country. Constraints in access to financial and human resources affect northerners? ability to implement adaptive measures. Challenges faced everyday by northern Canadians from extreme cold and a unique physical reality of permafrost[2], sea ice, and community isolation, combine to make this region notable for such a study.

BOX 1: NRTEE stakeholders have a range of views on climate change impacts and adaptation issues that require attention in Canada?s North
During the course of the program on Climate Change Adaptation Policy, the NRTEE commissioned research on the role of government in adaptation, specifically in Canada?s North. As part of this work, the research team conducted telephone interviews with northern stakeholders in April 2007. The interview format consisted of open-ended questions covering different aspects of climate change adaptation. The following presents aggregate results of answers to the question, ?what are the main impacts from climate change that will require adaptation efforts?? Results are not statistically representative of northern populations. They provide an indication of Northerners? perceptions of the issue at the time of the interviews.

What are the main impacts from climate change that will require adaptation efforts?
  • changes to culture
  • changes to the harvesting-based way of life
  • increased use of potential decline in iconic species, such as polar bear and caribou,
    as justification for challenging the harvesting economy
  • changes to diet and food security
  • threats to health, including mental health
  • decreased availability of water supplies
  • problems as a result of the spruce bark beetle
  • melting permafrost damaging infrastructure
  • damage to winter roads
  • damage to municipal infrastructure
  • coastal erosion and storm surges
  • increase in local shipping and transit
  • shipping in the Northwest Passage
  • environment and social threats linked to increased mineral and oil and gas development
  • combination of stressors is the ?key? issue

The Arctic and climate change was the focus of a high-level roundtable discussion held by the NRTEE in October 2008, as part of marking its 20th anniversary (summary available at: http://www.nrtee-trnee.ca/eng/news-media/events/other/20th-anniversary/climate-forward/climate-forward-contents-eng.php). Roundtable discussions concluded the following:

  • Although irreversible climate changes are already apparent in the region, we have only partial knowledge of what climate change is doing to Canada?s North and what this means for policy responses to issues of melting sea ice, sovereignty, resource development, and northern peoples and communities.
  • Arctic melting has clear international implications. A combination of unresolved sovereignty issues and the promise of newly accessible natural resources could lead to disputes over territory.
  • Canada?s Arctic peoples and communities need to be directly implicated in assessing climate risks and developing and implementing adaptation solutions.

We selected physical infrastructure because of the risks posed to it by climate change from permafrost degradation, for example; because of the costs involved in building and maintaining it; because of its crucial role in all dimensions of economic and social life for any community; and because it is typically designed and operated over lifespans of many decades. From an economic point of view alone, systematically addressing emerging climate risks to Canada?s infrastructure makes sense. According to Environment Canada, "More than 5 trillion dollars" worth of aging infrastructure could be at risk from a changing climate. Over the coming decade, billions of dollars could be invested in new infrastructure projects, and these structures will need to be designed and built to withstand changing climate conditions.?[3]

We focused on codes, standards, and related instruments (CSRIs), insurance, and disaster management as examples of existing risk-based mechanisms that governments could adjust to support adaptation to climate change. These are then strong examples of our interest in pursuing mainstreaming to facilitate climate change adaptation. All three are used to one degree or another already throughout Canada, and are familiar to governments at all levels. A brief explanation of each risk-based mechanism and their relationship to adaptation follows:

CSRIs account for a significant proportion of the rules that apply to infrastructure in Canada. Although often invisible to the public, they guide all phases of the infrastructure lifecycle from design to construction to maintenance by specifying end-product performance or material requirements. CSRIs incorporate numerous assumptions and directives in relation to the climate and weather conditions (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind), climate-related events (flooding, freeze-thaw cycles, etc.), and environmental conditions that infrastructure must withstand. Thus, the scope for integrating climaterelated risks into decision rules is significant.

Insurance is a financial mechanism that supports society?s management of risk, including the risk of disruption of services caused by weather-related damage to buildings and other types of infrastructure. The availability and affordability of insurance communicates the nature, magnitude, and frequency of risk. A changing climate affects the risks to which Canadians and their physical assets and economies are exposed, and, the eventual availability, cost, and character of insurance for addressing these risks. If designed optimally, insurance fosters a culture of risk reduction.

Protecting its citizens and their property from natural and human-caused disasters has long been one of government?s fundamental roles, a role that provides the rationale for services as varied as national defence, law enforcement, weather forecasting, and firefighting. Disaster management includes approaches to prevent disasters, increase a community?s preparedness and response capacity during a disaster, and help a community recover after a disaster. The strong links between climate change adaptation and disaster management are becoming increasingly evident.

1.3 True North Report

This report serves two purposes. First, it raises the profile and hence, the urgency of dealing with climate change adaptation in Canada?s North. Second, it provides immediate and longer-term advice to governments at all levels on adapting northern infrastructure ? through the application of known risk-based mechanisms ? to become more resilient and less vulnerable to climate change. There are lessons here for the rest of Canada.

Structure of the Report

The rest of the report follows this structure:

Chapter 2 introduces trends and conditions that influence decisions about climate change adaptation in Canada?s North. It describes a diverse and vast region that is undergoing unprecedented changes in its climate, governance, economy, and society.

Chapter 3 provides information on the challenges of managing infrastructure in Canada?s North and discusses the vulnerability of northern infrastructure to current and expected impacts of climate change. The chapter underscores the importance of addressing this challenge in the context of economic and social changes to ensure a reliable flow of services to northerners and those visiting Canada?s North.

Chapter 4 explores the dual roles of governments as facilitators of climate change adaptation in Canada and as adaptors themselves, and discusses implications of these roles for Canada?s North. This chapter also introduces a range of instruments and mechanisms that governments can use to support and leverage implementation of adaptation.

Chapter 5 assesses the potential of three existing risk-based mechanisms ? CSRIs, insurance, and disaster management ? as vehicles for improving the management of climate risks in relation to northern infrastructure.

Chapter 6 presents the conclusions of the NRTEE program, including lessons for other parts of Canada and recommendations for governments for enhancing the resilience of northern infrastructure in a changing climate.

Research Process

The following research and stakeholder engagement processes informed the analysis, findings, and recommendations in this report.

Research on Three Risk-based Mechanisms: The NRTEE commissioned three study teams to explore the relationship between CSRIs, insurance, and disaster management and northern infrastructure adaptation, respectively. Based on literature reviews (published scientific literature and grey literature), expert knowledge, and consultative processes, they examined current practices and institutional frameworks and analyzed gaps and policy options to address them through case studies on a variety of infrastructure types.

Integrated Research: To complement the work of the three study teams, the NRTEE commissioned additional studies of broad program relevance. This research included exploration of climate change adaptation and the role of governments and an analysis of the potential for legal liability as it relates to adaptation decisions of infrastructure professionals.

Stakeholder Consultation: An Expert Advisory Committee met several times during the course of the program to provide guidance to the three study teams, review emerging program findings, and identify and discuss common themes. Representation on the committee included the federal and territorial governments, Aboriginal organizations, research organizations, risk management practitioners, and industry. The committee provided valuable guidance to the study teams on key issues and policy options, and helped the NRTEE program integrate the work of the three studies by identifying and exploring important crosscutting themes.

Consultation with northern stakeholders was integral to the research of the three study teams. Stakeholder consultations were of several formats, including focus groups, unstructured interviews, and workshops. These processes allowed study teams to fill information gaps, validate research assumptions, and test ongoing findings. NRTEE study teams held consultation sessions between October 2007 and January 2008, most of which took place in northern communities. Aside from sessions in Toronto (Ontario) and Edmonton (Alberta), study teams visited Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), Gjoa Haven (Nunavut), Inuvik (Northwest Territories), and Whitehorse (Yukon). This research includes contributions from over 70 northern stakeholders, including the views of stakeholders from all orders of government, infrastructure practitioners, businesses, and research organizations. See Appendix 7.5 for a complete list of stakeholder sessions and participants.

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2 Permafrost refers to rock, sediment, and organic material that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years.

3 Environment Canada, EnviroZine, Issue 87, December 8, 2008, http://www.ec.gc.ca/EnviroZine/default.asp?lang=En&n=3D5D530C-1 accessed April 13, 2009.