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Canada unveils new climate adaptation strategy with more than $1-billion commitment

Weeks after post-tropical storm Fiona ripped through the Hebrides cottage community on New London Bay near Stanley Bridge, P.E.I., buildings and debris still littered the countryside and shoreline. (Shane Hennessey/CBC  - image credit)
Weeks after post-tropical storm Fiona ripped through the Hebrides cottage community on New London Bay near Stanley Bridge, P.E.I., buildings and debris still littered the countryside and shoreline. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

Canada's first climate adaptation strategy, unveiled today, commits the federal government to new targets for preventing extreme heat deaths, reversing species loss and protecting homes in flood- and wildfire-prone areas.

Environment and Climate Change Canada released the strategy — which has been almost two years in the making — in Prince Edward Island, one of the Atlantic provinces that felt the brunt of Hurricane Fiona in September.

The strategy envisions a country prepared to deal with the worst impacts of climate change. The high-level document talks about multiple targets but doesn't provide any hard numbers. The government says its goal is to set the stage for more detailed implementation plans to be rolled out later.

The government also announced $1.6 billion over five years in new funding to help jump-start the work that needs to be done. The money is meant to improve disaster response, protect Canadians from extreme heat and health effects and top up the disaster mitigation and adaptation fund.

The funding required from the public and private sectors to address the impacts of climate change in Canada is estimated at $5.3 billion per year, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, a trade association that represents the industry.

A federal official speaking on background told reporters Thursday the new funding is a "down payment" and acknowledged more will be required to achieve the strategy's goals. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair seemed to acknowledge this at the announcement.

"Clearly, there will need to be significant investments by all orders of governments and all Canadians across the country," Blair told reporters.

The NDP says it's not enough.

"This is a step in the right direction," said New Democrat emergency preparedness critic Richard Cannings. "It's just it's taken a long time.

"It's too little. We need much more ambition here to really do some meaningful things [to] prepare Canadians and communities for climate change."

While governments and communities have been anticipating and planning for the effects of climate change — which range from droughts and floods to permafrost loss, failing infrastructure and pressure on ecosystems — more needs to be achieved, says the strategy document.

"Our collective actions have often been insufficient or disjointed, and have not resulted in the swiftness and scale of adaptation that communities in Canada require," the document states.

Embedding climate change in all decision-making

In the hope of resetting the country's approach, the strategy rests on several pillars: disaster resilience, health and well-being, nature and infrastructure.

Without going into specifics, the strategy outlines several targets — such as reducing the number of people affected or killed by floods, wildfires and extreme heat.

On the infrastructure front, the strategy calls for embedding "climate change in all decisions to locate, plan, design, manage, adapt, operate and maintain infrastructure systems across their lifecycle."

Supplied by Daniel Mundall
Supplied by Daniel Mundall

The strategy commits Canada to new construction guidelines and standards, especially in areas prone to wildfires, flooding and other climate-related threats.

It sets broad targets for stopping and reversing nature and biodiversity loss. Indigenous communities, it says, must have opportunities to protect their traditional lands.

The strategy calls for expanding urban forests and wetlands in city landscapes. These nature-based solutions have been proven to reduce emissions and minimize the impacts of flooding and heat waves on urban populations.

The most significant aspect of Thursday's plan is that it outlines these priorities, said Sarah Miller, an adaptation research associate at the Canadian Climate Institute. She added that some may be tempted to focus on how much money is needed.

"That's essential because without [setting priorities], no amount of money is going to make a real difference," she said.

The strategy is meant to be a living document. The government promises to update it every five years and to start issuing progress reports as soon as 2025.

Feeling the effects of climate change

Climate change has had devastating impacts on Canadians already. In June 2021, Western Canada experienced a historic heat dome which set a record temperature of 49.6 degrees C in Lytton, B.C. A forest first would later tear through the community.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault called Hurricane Fiona in September "the most severe hurricane in the history of Canada. We've never seen anything like this."

"Lives were lost, and this is because of climate change," he added.

Economic analysis shows the impacts of climate change will be severe, even if the world does not exceed the international goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. A recent United Nations report warned that the failure of individual nations to cut their emissions is "leading our planet to at least 2.5 degrees warming, a level deemed catastrophic by scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

The Canadian Climate Institute estimates that by 2025, the impact of climate change could cut economic growth by $25 billion annually. More recently, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that even if the world meets its emissions reduction commitments, Canada's real GDP will take a 5.8 per cent hit in 2100.