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True North: Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change in Northern Canada

Executive Summary

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Why climate change adaptation of infrastructure in Canada?s North?

Climate change is a reality, and the global frontline runs directly through Canada?s North. Warming temperatures, changing precipitation and land ice conditions, melting glaciers and sea ice, earlier springs, increasingly volatile weather, and shifts in the distribution of animals and plants are all occurring. The impacts of climate change touch all regions of Canada, presenting environmental, social, and economic risks, and some potential opportunities. However, Canada?s North is particularly affected, with warming taking place at faster rates than throughout Canada as a whole, and more quickly than projected by climate models, even under the most pessimistic scenarios.

Adapting to the impacts of climate change, not just limiting the magnitude of future change through global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, is essential for northern communities to be secure in the decades ahead. The impacts of climate change pose risks to a range of economic sectors and systems that northerners value. Chief among them is the region?s infrastructure, including its roads, buildings, communications towers, energy systems, and waste disposal sites for communities, and large-scale facilities and waste-containment sites that support the territories? energy and mining operations. The risk to infrastructure systems will only intensify as the climate continues to warm.

For several years now, governments in Canada have been studying the issue of adaptation with the assumption that citizens will adjust as the nature of the threat becomes clear, with little or no government intervention beyond the generation and provision of information. Coordinated and strategic action in support of Canadian preparedness remains largely lacking. This is risky in the long term. Several opportunities already exist to integrate climate change adaptation alongside compatible policy goals, like Canada?s Northern Strategy.

Recognizing the unique vulnerability of Canada?s North and the potential for climate change to compromise sustainable regional development, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy embarked on a policy research program to consider climate change adaptation in this part of the country. This policy report includes the findings, recommendations, and conclusions of our work, and serves two purposes. First, it raises the profile of climate change adaptation in Canada?s North and stresses the urgency of dealing with it. Second, it provides immediate and longer-term advice to all levels of government on adapting northern infrastructure.

Given the pace of climate change and considering the potential for economic development and accompanying infrastructure expansion in Canada?s North, the time to capitalize on the adaptation opportunity is now.

Here are some of our recommendations:

  • The Canadian Government should adjust funding vehicles for infrastructure development and rehabilitation so that they become incentives to integrate the risk of damage from climate change in infrastructure decisions.
  • National codes and standards for engineering and construction should be reviewed and modified to accommodate risks of climate change.
  • Governments and the insurance industry need to work together so that Canadians continue to have access to affordable insurance in a changing climate and so that insurance products encourage modifications to infrastructure in light of climate risks.
  • Governments at all levels should collaborate with northern experts to develop the best possible design and engineering guidelines for the North.
  • The Government of Canada should invest in updating and providing more comprehensive climate data, climate change projections, and information for infrastructure design.
  • The Government of Canada needs to share the expertise and experience of Canada?s North in addressing climate risks to infrastructure with other polar nations as part of Canada?s Northern Strategy.

What did we examine?

Through qualitative research and extensive stakeholder consultation, including the views of over 70 northern residents and experts, we examined the risks to northern infrastructure posed by climate change and opportunities in adaptation. The NRTEE evaluated three risk-based mechanisms that together influence the degree to which the infrastructure in Canada?s North can withstand the impacts of climate change, thereby ensuring continued provision of services that communities and businesses depend on: codes, standards, and related instruments; insurance; and disaster management. Although these three mechanisms do not cover the full spectrum of tools to improve the management of climate risks, they are already in place and there is an immediate opportunity to utilize them as part of a broader climate change strategy.

Codes, standards, and related instruments (CSRI) ? "sets the bar" on all phases of the infrastructure life cycle, from design to construction to maintenance to decommissioning, by specifying performance or material requirements.

Insurance ? a financial mechanism that allows society to pool the management of risks, as such it has the potential to foster a culture of risk reduction and provide incentives to change behaviours that increase vulnerability to climate change.

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.

Our research, analysis, and consultations focused on Canada?s three territories ? Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut ? yet, many of the NRTEE?s findings, conclusions, and recommendations are likely to apply to northern reaches of several provinces.

What did we find?

Our research found that northerners are concerned that a warmer climate is already having an effect on the region?s infrastructure. We heard that changing precipitation patterns, including changes in snow, rain, and freezing rain conditions; permafrost degradation; flooding and streamflow changes; sea-ice loss and coastal erosion and other climate-related changes are compromising the integrity of transportation systems, buildings, communications, energy projects, and containment structures for storing waste from mining operations.

Canada?s North already faces many challenges and dealing with climate change will only add to their number. They include coping with a growing population and a diversity of socio-economic conditions as well as new opportunities for economic development and evolving northern governance structures.

We believe all sectors of society have a role to play in adapting to climate change, including the modifications needed to maintain and improve our northern infrastructure. Governments, in particular, have a range of policy instruments at their disposal ? both to make direct changes and to encourage and support others to make ?climate-wise? decisions across the country. In Canada?s North, successfully adapting to the impacts of a changing climate will involve cooperation across all levels of government ? local, Aboriginal, territorial, and federal ? with the delineation of roles and responsibilities taking place as northern governance regimes evolve. The federal government, in particular, can play a critical role in shaping strategies for climate change adaptation. It has a direct role in the political and economic development of the territories, circumpolar obligations, and roles in forecasting weather and sea-ice conditions and in maintaining the knowledge base of Canada?s land mass. At the same time, infrastructure development and renewal has emerged as a policy priority, presenting an incredible opportunity to phase in climate change adaptation as infrastructure planning and investments unfold.

Canada is not alone in searching for solutions to enhance the resilience of built infrastructure to a changing climate. We can be ahead of the curve by developing
skills, technologies, and governance in support of climate change adaptation. Commercial
opportunities exist for Canadian entrepreneurs, such as codes and standards development bodies, and publicprivate institutes like the Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Centre, to promote tools and technologies for adaptation in domestic and export markets.

Our evaluation of three risk-based mechanisms ? codes and standards, insurance, and disaster management ? as potential vehicles for adaptation of northern infrastructure led to five main findings:

  • 1. Limited interaction among scientists and data providers, designers and builders of infrastructure, and policy-makers are barriers to problem identification and the application of solutions.

  • 2. National institutions, such as national codes and standards, pay inadequate attention to northern interests and conditions.

  • 3. Significant gaps exist in the availability and accessibility of data and information that form the basis for infrastructure risk management and loss prevention. These include information on current and projected impacts of climate change, and data on the stock of, and demand projections for infrastructure.

  • 4. The capacity across and within northern jurisdictions to assess climate risks to infrastructure, and to develop, deploy, and enforce standards and risk reduction measures is uneven and lacking.

  • 5. Important synergies exist among codes and standards, insurance, and disaster management in terms of their combined potential to drive climate change adaptation. These synergies could be better exploited.

What did we conclude?

  • Strategies to address the impacts of climate change targeting Canada?s North must have the flexibility to accommodate the incredible cultural, social, political, and economic diversity represented in the region. In some cases, pan-northern strategies may be less appropriate than efforts to leverage action across north-south borders.

  • Conditions such as the enormous distances between settlements across the region and sometimes unreliable or limited supply of goods and services increase the vulnerability of communities to climate shocks. Enhancing community-level resilience in the face of change is key.

  • Northern stakeholders face competing demands on financial and human resources, emphasizing the importance of integrating adaptation into existing or newly formed institutions, such as regulatory processes, asset management plans, resource management and community plans, to help prepare for the impacts of climate change alongside other priorities. These findings also support investments in adaptation strategies or actions that yield social, environmental, or economic benefits regardless of future climate change, including opportunities to learn from and contribute to circumpolar initiatives.

  • Adapting to climate change is a shared concern across the territories, and, indeed several initiatives related to infrastructure adaptation are taking place. However, access to knowledge, technical skills, and finances to effectively plan and deliver actions to minimize climate risks to infrastructure varies within and across the territories. In light of the rapid changes in northern climates, addressing capacity constraints such as these is critical.

  • Existing climate and environmental data[1] and information are insufficient and inadequate to effectively project and plan for infrastructure adaptation, particularly at the site-specific level.

  • Professionals involved in northern infrastructure planning, design, and operations need better guidelines and methodologies ? so-called guidance ? to incorporate climate change?related information, such as trends and forward-looking projections, into their decisions.

  • Finally, the absence of an overall national framework or commitment to coordinate and integrate federal, territorial, Aboriginal, and community adaptation actions, results in piecemeal responses that run the risk of being ineffective and expensive.

What do we recommend?

Our report shows clearly how improvements in the use of existing risk-based mechanisms can reduce infrastructure vulnerabilities and address climate risks into the future.

Integrating climate risks into existing government policies, processes, and mechanisms

The NRTEE recommends that:

  • The Government of Canada use its infrastructure programming and related federal-provincialterritorial frameworks to leverage the integration of climate risks in new construction and rehabilitation of infrastructure, ensuring that the systems are in place to monitor and report on infrastructure performance.
  • The Government of Canada, through the Standards Council of Canada, lead efforts to ensure the effectiveness of codes and standards for infrastructure design, planning, and management to address climate risks, and that this be regularly assessed in light of new climate information.
  • Governments and the insurance industry collaborate to examine the role of private insurance in managing climate risks to infrastructure, potential changes in access to coverage of insurance as new climate risk factors emerge, and the need for mandatory disclosure of financial risks that climate change poses to the industry.
  • Governments at all levels undertake a collaborative review of current disaster/emergency management frameworks as mechanisms to enable adaptation to climate change on a preventative basis.

Ensuring northern interests are represented and implicated in the development of climate change adaptation solutions

The NRTEE recommends that:

  • The Government of Canada promote dialogue and engagement between risk management practitioners (codes, standards, and related instruments; insurance; disaster/emergency management) operating in Canada?s North and the climate change adaptation community.
  • The Government of Canada consider expanding the relevant national model codes, such as the National Building Code of Canada, to provide direction to northern infrastructure practitioners on the integration of climate risks.
  • Governments collaborate with northern infrastructure practitioners to develop design and engineering guidelines or peer-reviewed best practices specifically for Canada?s North for each major category of infrastructure.
  • Governments highlight expertise and experience in addressing climate risks to northern infrastructure at the circumpolar level, to share knowledge, learn from others, and enforce Canadian leadership as part of Canada?s Northern Strategy.

Strengthening the science capacity and information use in the North to support long-term adaptation efforts

The NRTEE recommends that:

  • The Government of Canada invest in expanding the weather and permafrost data stations in Canada?s North that it uses to collect this critical information, in support of infrastructure adaptation decision-making needs.
  • The Government of Canada ensure the continued investment in climate science and modelling, and in climate change impacts and adaptation research, taking advantage of partnerships with Arctic research institutes and innovative delivery mechanisms.
  • The Government of Canada dedicate resources to reliably update and disseminate regionally relevant climate data and information, climate change projections, and climate design values to support infrastructure decisions.
  • Governments, the private sector, and research organizations work together to make existing adaptation-relevant scientific and technical data and information more accessible and usable to northern infrastructure practitioners, owners, and operators.

Building community capacity to address climate risks to northern infrastructure and take advantage of opportunities

The NRTEE recommends that:

  • Governments continue to support community-based infrastructure risk reduction through activities such as building awareness of the linkages between disaster management and climate change adaptation, critical infrastructure mapping, and developing and tracking of vulnerability indicators.
  • Governments support regional innovation in Canada?s North by encouraging the development of new technologies and materials adapted to cold climates and enabling their commercialization.
  • Governments work together to identify gaps and support regional skills development to address infrastructure needs in a changing northern climate, including ensuring local capacity exists to conduct risk assessments, and to deploy and enforce risk reduction measures and standards locally and regionally.
  • Governments, the private sector, communities, and research organizations consider how to further tap into traditional and local knowledge as a unique contributor to building community and regional capacity for adaptation.

The above recommendations address two priorities: ?mainstreaming? climate change adaptation into current and future policy and decision-making processes; and building northern capacity to adapt to climate change. These priorities must be undertaken simultaneously over time if we are to organize ourselves to successfully make northern communities, businesses, and the infrastructure that sustains them, resilient and adaptive to the looming reality of climate change in Canada?s North.

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1 ?Data? refers to raw measurements of physical conditions. They become an input into the generation of information. For example, the values used for design of infrastructure require significant data analysis in order to become relevant information for infrastructure design, codes and standards.