Hans Arisz’s job as an engineer currently working in Saint John, N.B. – inspecting and assessing urban infrastructure – has just become bigger. He’s looking at how the city will respond to and manage the effects of climate change.
Increasingly, urban communities across Canada are seeing the big picture, hiring consultants and adopting plans to determine the changes needed to cope with the long-term problem of climate change worldwide.
“In Saint John, we’re helping the city with its climate-change action plan,” says Mr. Arisz, a civil engineer and principal at Fredericton-based engineering firm R.V. Anderson and Associates Ltd. “We do a risk rating for all of the city’s infrastructure, and then we look at it a second time, considering the changing loads from climate [factors].”
Addressing potential wear and tear due to climate change used to be an afterthought for engineering firms; now it’s a key item on their checklists for urban projects. Whether it’s a large city such as Toronto or Vancouver, or a smaller one such as Saint John, engineers are currently focusing on how bridges, tunnels, pipes, wires and walls fare in a world where extreme weather and temperatures are becoming the norm.
“Of all three levels of government, municipalities are the most active when it comes to [addressing] climate change,” says Eddie Oldfield, Fredericton-based senior lead of project and advisory services for QUEST, a national not-for-profit organization established in 2007. QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow) engages directly with governments, utility companies and the private sector on climate change and clean energy-related improvements.
“Communities can work to become more resilient, adapting to climate change while at the same time reducing the greenhouse gases they emit,” Mr. Oldfield says.
QUEST’s reach extends to more than 200 communities of all sizes across Canada to help them become smart cities with energy systems, buildings, housing and transportation networks that can meet the 21st-century demands posed by weather swings and severe storms, as well as the influx of people into urban areas and gridlock.
Adjusting to a warmer, wetter, windier world is mandatory for all communities, no matter their size. Earth’s oceans are heating up, contributing to cyclones and floods, and putting at risk hundreds of millions of people living in coastal cities, including those in Canada, such as Saint John. This dire warning was issued in the recently released UN-backed Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Mr. Arisz says virtually every engineering task that involves infrastructure needs to be evaluated relative to climate change. “In Saint John, there may be a culvert that’s in good shape and, right now, has a low risk rating. But if you add the fact that climate change gives us bigger, more frequent storms, it might not have the capacity it needs, so the risk may now be unacceptable.”
Seeking solutions to persistent annual flooding compelled Saint John’s city council to approve a climate-change action plan this past May. It came just days after the Saint John River flooded, forcing people from their homes and triggering disaster relief – just as it had done in 2018.
“We engaged R.V. Anderson to help bring in our program to help us with a roadmap [for] the next two or three years,” says Samir Yammine, Saint John’s manager of asset and energy management. The project will cost nearly $27-million, he says, with the federal government contributing about 40 per cent this year.
Planning for floods, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes used to fall into the category of emergency response, but cities across Canada now consider climate-change action its own high-priority category. Cities pose the biggest problems, yet paradoxically, because they cause most of these problems, they also hold the potential to provide the biggest solutions.
The UN Climate Action Summit, held on September 23 in New York, revealed that more than half of the world’s population reside in urban areas and that cities are responsible for about 70 per cent of energy-related greenhouse gases worldwide.
While all major communities in Canada have climate-change action plans or are preparing them, the pace and extent vary. Toronto approved its TransformTO plan in 2017, and the process to update it, which spans 2021–23, begins in October, 2019, with a call for public input. TransformTO calls for the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels – by 30 per cent by 2020, 65 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050.
“Achieving these targets will require transformational changes in how we live, work, build and commute,” says the City of Toronto website’s TransformTO section. That’s quite a challenge when Ontario and other provinces are fighting Ottawa in court over even a modest carbon tax.
City governments are aware that the pressure is on from national and international watchdogs, as well as vocal activists such as 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Indeed, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver belong to the London-based C40 network of megacities committed to addressing climate change.
In sync with the 2019 C40 World Mayors Summit, to be held in Copenhagen, Mayor John Tory in Toronto issued a climate-emergency declaration, which would help his city’s lawmakers focus on the need for more urgent measures.
Meanwhile, as part of a panel on carbon neutrality, Montreal’s Mayor Valérie Plante addressed the UN climate summit, committing her city to leadership and promising to reduce carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.
“Cities are already taking action by working actively to fight climate change, but we need to do much more,” Ms. Plante said, describing Montreal’s plan as ambitious but attainable. “We know the recipe.”
As part of the rapidly growing effort to protect communities against expected climate change – requiring preparedness at multilevels – Mr. Arisz uses engineering analysis tools to focus on the biggest impacts to infrastructure.
“In New Brunswick’s case, it’s flooding. In both 2018 and 2019 Saint John saw some of the biggest floods it has ever seen,” he says. “So that’s what we focus on. Wherever we work now, everything we do is done through a climate change lens.”