Blair Feltmate is chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development.
As Canada is now being hit by yet another round of floods, this time in Manitoba and the midwest, now might be the time to have an adult conversation about the optimal means to address climate change and extreme weather in the future. At the heart of this conversation are two interdependent questions: is spending money to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions a prudent choice for Canada, and should Canada double down on efforts to adapt to climate-change and extreme-weather events in an effort to de-risk the country? These questions are interdependent – in a world of government debt and deficits, financial resources directed to one effort become unavailable for application to the other.
When considering the optimal allocation of effort, an emerging reality must factor into decision-making. Canada has yet to experience high-intensity and high-duration rainfall events compared to what can be expected in the future. The science on this is clear. The Calgary and Toronto floods of 2013, and now those of Brandon in 2014, are effectively canaries in the coal mine. Regarding flood preparation, the new benchmark to which Canada should adjust must well exceed the intensity of floods to date. So let’s consider whether mitigating greenhouse gases (GHGs) makes sense for Canada, or if resources might be more effectively deployed by focusing on adaptation.
Mitigation: To date, efforts to mitigate GHG emissions in Canada have realized some success, driven by large-scale energy switching programs, such as Ontario’s off-coal electricity generation program, or through energy-efficiency protocols. As a result of such efforts, in 2011 Canada’s GHG emissions were 702 megatonnes, which compared favourably with 2005 emissions of 737 megatonnes. Despite this success, Canada’s GHG emissions are now on an upward curve, with a forecast to emit 734 megatonnes by 2020. This elevated level of emissions might seem disappointing, but had no mitigation effort been undertaken, 2020 total emissions would have exceeded 800 megatonnes.
Canada’s growing GHG emissions are being mirrored globally. For example, the International Energy Agency documents that about 80 per cent of current world energy supply is derived from one-third each of coal, oil and natural-gas sources (i.e., fossil fuels). By 2030, this energy mix will remain unchanged; the total global carbon footprint will increase by 20 per cent relative to current levels, due to a net increase of 1.5 billion people on the planet within 15 years.
So, even if Canada were to embrace mitigation, which might make sense politically and from the perspective of symbolism, the effort would nonetheless be too little too late to curtail global GHG loadings.
Recognizing that the climate-change ship has left the harbour, Canada needs to embrace adaption now, aggressively, or the damage currently at play with the Manitoba floods will be the low end of the new normal for cities.
Adaptation: Adaptation can be thought of as the “poor cousin” to mitigation efforts in Canada, as almost all climate-related efforts to date have focused on mitigation.
Adaptation, in its basic form, focuses on how to de-risk a system, such as a city, relative to extreme weather – and by far the biggest offender in Canada is flooding. Indeed, for nine of the past eleven years in Canada, claims have exceeded premiums in the property-and-casualty insurance sector, driven largely by basement flooding. In the past five years in Canada, insurable catastrophic loss claims have exceeded $1-billion for the first time, and the upward curve continues with 2014 offering no let-up. It is not mathematically complex to see that flood damage in Canada must be brought under control to ensure a sustainable property and casualty insurance sector. By extension, an impacted insurance market will hurt Canada’s mortgage market, as the two are co-dependent.
To help de-risk the ongoing threat of flood damage, the property and casualty insurance sector has identified several courses of cost-effective and meaningful action for Canada to adopt. First, we can develop up-to-date flood-plain maps to give Canadians a sense of where not to build relative to current and future potential flooding. Second, we can retain natural infrastructure, such as wetlands, and weather-harden built infrastructure, such as building diversion channels, to direct water to non-harmful locations within and around cities. Third, we can develop a home-adaptation audit program to provide guidance to homeowners on how to safeguard their homes from flooding. And fourth, we can modify building codes to ensure that the residential housing market and commercial properties take adaptation to extreme weather into account.
Current floods in the west should inform responsible citizens that the above four courses of action should be mobilized now, by cities and towns across Canada. Australia found that for every $1 allocated to adaptation, $10 of avoided losses (or more) resulted. This is a pretty good return on investment, and it would apply equally to Canada. With the same enthusiasm originally devoted to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, Canada needs to embrace adaptation now to avoid ongoing management by disaster scenarios.