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analysis

The federal government has finally released its long-awaited plan to build Canada’s resilience to climate change, including $1.6-billion in new spending focused on safeguarding infrastructure.

The country’s first National Adaptation Strategy falls short of the ambition envisioned when Ottawa first promised it two years ago as a comprehensive roadmap to counter floods, wildfires, extreme heat and other growing threats. But taken as a work-in-progress, which is how the government is framing it, the strategy has some promise as a belated start in setting clear targets for resilience-building and implementing corresponding measures.

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Presented on Thursday in Prince Edward Island by Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair – on behalf of Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, whose office said he was absent because of a personal matter – the strategy consists of two components.

The more immediately substantive of them lays out the $1.6-billion in new federal investments. The bulk of that money will go toward communities, through $530-million toward the Green Municipal Fund administered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a $491-million top-up for the existing Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. (The latter commitment is spread over the next 10 years; the other spending is mostly over the next five years.)

Other spending measures in that package include $164-million to improve Canadians’ access to flood mapping, $30-million for an extreme-heat protection program, $41-million for a pilot program aimed at improving resilience in northern and coastal communities, and $70-million for a national science assessment aimed at improving climate data.

Even taking into account approximately $8-billion in pre-existing federal climate-adaptation commitments, the money is nowhere near what will likely ultimately be needed as different regions of the country face a growing array of potentially devastating climate-change consequences.

But the government appeared to acknowledge as much, describing the new spending as a “down payment” on adaptation, which implies more will follow. And notably, some specific policy promises that Ottawa has already made – including the creation of a national insurance program for homes in areas of high flood risk, supposed to be released in the coming months – were not included in this package.

The other component released on Thursday is a proposal of shared federal, provincial and territorial priorities for adaptation.

Billed by Ottawa as a “whole of society blueprint,” the document addresses the five aspects of resilience-building – disaster response, infrastructure, nature and biodiversity, health, and the economy – that the strategy is meant to encompass.

It largely does so by setting rather high-level goals that may be disappointing to anyone looking for benchmarks that set a clear path and could be used to hold government accountable going forward.

For instance, the disaster section only commits to broad objectives such as all communities being “able to implement timely and successful emergency response plans” and ensuring that “people affected by disasters face minimal disruptions to lives and livelihoods, and can return to their homes within a reasonable period of time.” In other sections, the objectives are even vaguer.

Buried in the document’s annex, however, are proposals for more explicit targets that could actually drive specific policies and intergovernmental co-ordination.

Examples include ensuring that 60 per cent of Canadians are aware by 2025 of the disaster risks facing their homes; that 200 out of 250 targeted high-risk areas are covered by new flood maps by 2028; that 30 per cent of lands and waters are conserved by 2030 to halt biodiversity loss; and that by 2040 all deaths owing to extreme heat have been eliminated.

The document states that the targets have been put forward “for discussion and refinement as needed.” This indicates that they are essentially trial balloons before Ottawa heads into further consultations with the provinces and territories, the private sector, Indigenous communities and other partners.

That’s a more open-ended and equivocal outcome than advocates for robust adaptation policy had hoped for, especially given that Canada was slower than many other countries to start formulating this sort of plan.

And there is also likely to be some disappointment about the lack of correlation between the new spending measures and the proposed targets, although Mr. Blair implied at the announcement that the targets would help guide future expenditures.

“Informed by the National Adaptation Strategy, we’ll be better and safer and smarter in how we make our investments going forward,” he said.

The strategy still marks more progress than some had feared, after a troubled development process in which the government struggled to give adaptation the focus it deserves. That was despite work on it beginning shortly after a series of natural disasters underscored the urgency – punctuated by the burning to the ground of Lytton, B.C., in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave.

In September, Climate Proof Canada – an adaptation coalition led by the Insurance Bureau of Canada – released a letter warning that the NAS was on track to deliver only “vague and distant goals” that would be “too little, too late.”

The government subsequently scrapped plans to release the strategy at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt earlier this month as it worked to add more substance.

That effort seems to have mollified critics, for now at least. Craig Stewart, the insurance bureau’s vice-president for federal affairs, responded on Thursday morning by calling it a “brave and ambitious strategy” and suggesting that “the gauntlet has been thrown” for others to work with Ottawa in making the proposed targets real.

The question now will be whether the federal government itself is able to maintain its recently heightened focus, to continue making up for lost time in determining how Canada will have to change to minimize climate change’s human and economic toll.