By Quentin Chiotti and David Van Vliet

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was a landmark event that brought together 172 governments, including Canada, and 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations to address global environmental and developmental challenges. Some readers will recall, with pride, Canada’s leading role in the 1992 Summit. Notable Canadians that participated included: Maurice Strong, the Secretary-General of the Earth Summit, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who led the Canadian delegation, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a key organizer of the Summit, and David Suzuki, a renowned Canadian environmentalist, scientist and broadcaster.

One of the main outcomes of the Earth Summit was the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Article 2 is the main provision of the UNFCCC that had the ultimate objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human-caused interference with the Earth’s climate. This level has typically been cited as the greenhouse gas concentration that would result in a global mean temperature reaching 2°C above the historical baseline average (1850-1900), but at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), 196 attendees agreed to the Paris Agreement, which promoted an aspirational target of 1.5°C.

As of 2024, we are approaching a 1.5°C warmer world and have yet to reach peak greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Globally we may have already reached the point where we are destined to fail to meet our commitment to avoid a level of climate change that will compromise the ability of ecosystems to adapt naturally, threaten food production, and keep economic development from proceeding in a sustainable manner. Meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement to achieve net zero emissions in sufficient time to avoid 2°C warming, let alone 1.5°C, is very much in doubt. Current policies and more stringent pledges and targets by 2050 may still result in 2.1°C to 2.9°C in global warming by the end of this century. Adopting a business-as-usual strategy without acting to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions could result in global mean temperatures exceeding 4°C above historical levels.

Such temperature increases are particularly concerning for Canada, where changes in mean temperature are projected to be even greater than the global average, and where public infrastructure has been identified as a sector at risk. Our recently lived experiences remind us daily that climate change is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Canadians have witnessed recurring extreme weather events, drought conditions, floods, heat waves and wildfires potentially threatening human health, food security, biodiversity and of course, our infrastructure. Chronic or longer-term shifts in climate conditions, as well as more frequent abnormal but less catastrophic events should not be ignored, as these can also have significant consequences for service delivery (e.g., shortened season for winter roads, more slow orders issued for rail service during hot days, increase in freeze/thaw cycles creating more potholes, etc.). We expect these impacts to worsen in the coming decades and become more significant for the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, particularly those in the North. In response to growing evidence, the need for climate adaptation is urgent. In Canada we are on track to finance, design and build billions of dollars of critical Canadian infrastructure projects, and we must move faster than changes in government policy and improvements in standards and take action to build more resilient infrastructure today and in the future.

Most high-profile climate change policy initiatives have been directed towards greenhouse gas mitigation objectives as opposed to climate adaptation. Across Canada many federal and provincial policy measures have been initiated over the years including greenhouse gas offsets, carbon taxes, electric vehicle incentives, and renewable energy subsidies, among others, with uneven results. While some have been deemed controversial and at times politicized, national and provincial emission reductions remain far short of reaching our commitments of the Paris Agreement. As society grapples with the race to zero by 2050, and as the effects of climate change increase, we can expect greater urgency for government and the private sector to work together to address climate change through both mitigation and adaptation actions.

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Thirty years ago, adaptation was rarely mentioned at a climate change meeting or conference, or at best it was included in the conversation because it allowed society more time to reduce emissions. Over time, it has become clearer that some degree of climate change is inevitable and unavoidable, and that climate adaptation is necessary to cope with the adverse effects of climate change on human and natural systems. Thirty years later, the case for mitigation now includes giving society more time to adapt. Policy goals are shifting from primarily mitigation towards greater consideration of adaptation, as reflected in the Paris Agreement and other subsequent legal instruments adopted by various governments. Support for adaptation in countries vulnerable to climate change has dominated the policy discourse, along with growing support for protecting, preserving, and enhancing nature and ecosystems. Domestically the emergence of adaptation has been relatively uneven and slow in its development, but since 2015 much more attention has been directed towards it, culminating in the release of Canada’s first National Adaptation Strategy and Government of Canada Adaptation Action Plan in 2023.

 

ADAPTATION In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities.

MITIGATION A human intervention to reduce emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.

RISK The potential for adverse consequences of a climate-related hazard on lives, ecosystems, infrastructure assets and services.

 

The cost of extreme weather, climate change and adaptation

As society begins to experience the effects of climate change, there has been growing interest in quantifying the cost of impacts from acute and chronic changes in climate. It is well documented that the insured costs of extreme weather events globally, including Canada, have been increasing over the past few decades, and are on a clear trajectory upwards. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada severe weather in 2023 caused more than $3.1 billion in insured damage. 2023 ranked fourth among Canada’s top-10 highest insured severe-weather loss years on record (in 2022 dollars). The highest insured severe-weather loss year was 2016, with a total loss estimated at almost $6 billion, coinciding with the fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta. These amounts do not include uninsured losses that could also be significant.

Estimating the cost of climate change impacts is a challenging task, and this is commonly considered as the costs of doing nothing. Estimates of the costs of chronic and acute climate change impacts vary, but there is widespread agreement that the costs could be substantial, affecting sectors, communities, and reducing our projected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. Estimates of the costs and benefits of adaptation are also variable or difficult to measure with confidence, but there is growing evidence that proactive or reactive adaptation is more cost-effective than doing nothing. The Canadian Climate Institute, for example, has estimated that every dollar invested today in proactive adaptation will return $15 in direct and economy-wide benefits, that includes reductions in the cost of repair or replacement of lost or damaged infrastructure. The Financial Accountability Office (FAO) of Ontario offers similar evidence, estimating that in the absence of adaptation, Ontario’s public infrastructure costs will rise by approximately eight per cent (or about $2 billion per year) on average over the rest of the century for each degree Celsius increase in the global mean surface temperature. In addition, climate-related infrastructure costs for municipalities in Ontario are projected to be four times larger than for the province. These costs are very significant when municipalities show projections of large deficits in their ability to fund the replacement and renewal costs for infrastructure without accounting for the impact of climate change.

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All levels of government would be advised to consider the findings of the FAO in their management of legacy infrastructure assets. The FAO considered three different asset management scenarios, recognizing that climate hazards are accelerating the deterioration of assets, resulting in higher capital investments for rehabilitation and renewals, and higher spending for operations and maintenance (O&M) activities. Compared with doing nothing, where assets management does not consider increasing climate-related costs caused by accelerated deterioration and more frequent O&M activities, adopting a reactive or proactive approach may initially involve higher capital costs, but the maintenance costs throughout the asset lifecycle will be lower.

What’s gone well for climate adaptation?

Proponents involved in planning public and private sector infrastructure projects are increasingly being asked to consider the impacts of warmer, wetter, and wilder weather, projected with climate change. In Ontario, for example, the Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act, 2015 included among their infrastructure planning principles, that new public infrastructure “should be designed to be resilient to the effects of climate change.” Similarly, Ontario Regulation 588/17 Asset Management Planning for Municipal Infrastructure calls for Municipalities to consider, as part of its asset management planning “the actions that may be required to address the vulnerabilities that may be caused by climate change to the municipality’s infrastructure assets.” In British Columbia the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has also been proactive and progressive through their Technical Circulars for highways and bridges, providing guidance and direction that informs resilient infrastructure engineering design as an adaptation response to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.

There is also growing expectations for the public and private sector to understand and disclose climate-related risks, both transitional and physical risks. This expectation emerged from the 2015 Paris Agreement with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which is evolving into standardized risk reporting requirements through the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and others. The identification of risks through these standards are likely more to appease financial markets, rather than inform asset or project specific decisions. While Canada supports the adoption of disclosure rules based on the ISSB standards, these are voluntary and not mandatory, and this process is still very much a work in progress.

A big boost to infrastructure adaptation has been through joint federal and provincial initiatives, such as Infrastructure Canada’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program and the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. To be eligible for government funding new infrastructure projects must apply a “Climate Lens” that considers greenhouse gas emissions and physical climate risks. In the latter case this must involve the application of a recognized climate risk assessment framework and provide an explanation on how new infrastructure through design and/or O&M will reduce vulnerability and impacts and minimize service disruptions. The costs of assessing physical climate risks for new infrastructure are covered through the funding program, while it is implied that the costs of adaptation will be incorporated into the new design and/or O&M procedures and captured within the overall project budget.

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In support of the Climate Lens requirement the federal government has engaged and collaborated with regional partners to establish climate change data portals that act as a science-based resource to inform climate change risk assessments. In addition, the federal government has also funded the development of a broad suite of risk assessment tools offered through the PIEVC program for application to Climate Lens eligible projects, for portfolios of assets, and for natural infrastructure. Correspondingly there has also been an advancement in guidance, tools, and design standards, headed by the National Research Council, the Canadian Standards Association, and the Standards Council of Canada, but this is a long and laborious process where progress takes time, and their coverage is selective and limited.

While we are beginning to recognize the need and urgency for climate adaptation, there are many barriers to achieving a goal of climate resiliency in Canada. At its most fundamental level, we are facing a situation where we cannot fund the replacement and renewal of our aging infrastructure even to a level of performance to meet our current climate and design standards. Various factors including uncertainty, organizational capacity, and technical capability result in a situation where our design standards have not been updated quickly enough to reflect a future climate. Finally, our bid and tendering process for public infrastructure is biased towards the use of outdated design standards and lower-price solutions, and this makes it difficult to introduce innovative and resilient design and construction methods.

Now is the time for action

A call for action is needed for leaders charged with managing existing assets and building new infrastructure, that recognizes adaptation as a necessary response to our changing climate. While there will be challenges to increasing design standards, proactively managing legacy assets, and addressing residual risks through modified O&M activities in the most cost-effective manner, any additional costs incurred are likely to be more than off-set by the rising costs of increasing climate hazards on asset performance, service delivery, and safety. Taking actions that reduce emissions and vulnerability together may be a good place to start for some decision makers, while others may be positioned to adopt nature-based solutions instead of further hardening or upsizing of infrastructure. Regardless of what adaptation measures are implemented, their inclusion and selection should be informed by a climate change risk assessment, recognizing that risk is ultimately shared by planners, designers, engineers, contractors, asset managers, and O&M personnel. Adaptation is needed now, and for as long as climate change hazards are expected to impose risks on our infrastructure.

 

Quentin Chiotti, PhD. is Technical Director, Climate Risk and Resilience with Matrix Solutions Inc. (A Montrose Environmental Company), and a member of ReNew Canada’s Editorial Advisory Board.

David Van Vliet, P. Eng. is Service Director, Climate Risk and Emerging Services with Matrix Solutions Inc.

[This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: Permanent repairs to Coquihalla Highway 5 are complete after it was washed out during unprecedented flooding two years ago. (BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)

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