For those of us who research, track and advocate for climate action, the third week of April was a doozie.
First, the federal government noted correctly that “climate change threatens Canadians’ health, wealth, and safety,” then allocated billions to a sweeping array of new and expanded actions in Budget 2021. A few days later, the prime minister considerably ramped up Canada’s emissions-reduction ambition at President Biden’s climate summit.
The former will be critical to delivering on the latter, but we will succeed only if we strategically direct funding through integrated policy and programs. As research leaders at the first university-based North American think tank dedicated to integrated climate action – in particular, local government policies and planning that simultaneously advance both mitigation and adaptation – we read the fine print with keen interest.
Ottawa is certainly off to a good start. Over the next five years, roughly $8.75 billion will flow to mitigation actions such as clean energy production, electrification, and efficiency, as well as adaptation efforts such as stormwater system upgrades, wetland and shoreline restoration, and flood mapping.
However, much more needs to be done, particularly in terms of integrated climate policies that lift all boats – an approach known as low carbon resilience, or LCR.
With respect to climate impacts, Canada’s 4,000 or so local governments are currently taking it on the chin, as communities grapple with increasingly severe and costly wildfires, flooding, extreme weather events and economic hardships. The federal government is supporting them via its 2016 Investing in Canada Plan, as well as other programs and funds delivered through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Natural Resources Canada.
But Ottawa’s new mitigation and adaptation funding won’t be enough to get on top of the full sweep of risks so long as we continue to dole it out in separate buckets.
Already locked-in climate impacts will increase emissions – picture a massive surge in air conditioning and other cooling measures due to punishing heatwaves – as will “maladaptive” responses such as large-scale investments in concrete seawalls and ever-expanding drainage as solutions to increased flood risks (figure 1, top left quadrant). Renewable energy infrastructure won’t be effective if it’s sited in areas subject to increased flooding, or not designed to withstand extreme heat, nor will our building stock (bottom right quadrant).
Community leaders need to identify and enact policies, pursue actions and invest in projects that not only lessen their local government’s exposure to climate risks such as disrupted service delivery and costly damages from fire and flooding, but also actively reduce emissions, while advancing myriad other government and community priorities such as community safety and health, equity and biodiversity (upper right quadrant).
Our research team has investigated LCR since 2016. After extensive collaboration with leading local governments across our home province of British Columbia, we’ve validated it as an effective planning and decision-making approach, with potential for ongoing advancement of co-ordinated, sustainable planning.
For example, the City of Port Moody recently applied an LCR planning approach during the procurement phase of its climate planning work and directed adaptation and mitigation consultants to collaborate. The move collapsed two planning processes into one, saving the city up to 50 per cent of its climate planning budget and as much as a year in process and engagement time.
In the Okanagan, the District of Summerland incorporated LCR criteria into its business prioritization process and now evaluates all proposed projects over $10,000 on their potential to reduce climate risk and emissions while advancing other social, economic and environmental priorities.
On governance, an LCR approach enables municipalities to take a more systemic and collaborative approach, weaving a changing climate into all decisions across the org chart.
In the Town of Gibsons, B.C., for example, the chief administrative officer is now also designated the chief resilience officer. By developing an LCR framework and reconfiguring its governance structure into cross-departmental teams, Gibsons is now better positioned to respond to community risk and low-carbon development challenges.
The LCR approach has friends in high places. The global climate science community is increasingly urging policy-makers to consider interdependencies between adaptation and mitigation efforts. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has steadily turned up the volume on integration since 2014. More recently, it underscored the imperative to integrate the two, and the transformative potential in doing so, in its 2018 special report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius.
Ottawa is gradually getting the integration memo. Infrastructure Canada’s Climate Lens – which requires project-funding applicants to outline emissions and climate-resilience considerations – and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change both cite adaptation and mitigation as important objectives. Budget 2021 also emphasizes nature-based solutions – an excellent example of the LCR approach.
But current funding mechanisms do not yet adequately co-ordinate adaptation and mitigation in data collection, integrated planning or decision support. This leads to missed opportunities to identify synergies and to streamline effects at the local scale, as well as to unlock social, environmental and economic co-benefits.
There are plenty of examples of what not to do. But as we have shown, there are already examples of local governments – even small ones that are new to the climate action arena – getting it right.
All policy-makers and decision-makers must make informed decisions and investments that will steadily drive down emissions, cushion our communities from the worst impacts yet to come, and recover from them as smoothly as possible while ensuring they thrive. Local government leaders are proving out the LCR approach from the bottom-up, but they need the support of senior governments and funders, and guidance from trained practitioners and service providers to nail it.
As federal leaders move to direct the Budget 2021 funding into policies, projects and programs, we urge them to consider the growing body of evidence that well-planned integrated actions can not only reduce emissions, but also yield more resilient and sustainable communities for everyone.