Adapting to a Changing Climate – Neglecting Our Basic Obligations?
In early 2005, the ECO contacted staff at several ministries to inquire about provincial efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – gases that have been linked to global climate change. Part of the impetus for this ECO project was that the Kyoto Protocol was scheduled to come into effect in February 2005. In our 2004/2005 annual report, the ECO described the efforts of the province, and particularly the Ministry of the Environment, to reduce GHG emissions – called climate change “mitigation” – as “rather low-key.”
In addition to mitigation, the other major approach necessary to deal with climate change is “adaptation.” An adaptation approach acknowledges that some degree of climate change is already under way and likely to continue, despite mitigation efforts. Ideally, governments should pursue both mitigation and adaptation approaches.
Adaptation measures could help ensure that Ontario’s ecosystems and built environments are better able to withstand the pronounced shift in climate that has been projected and that will likely lead to increased occurrences of severe weather – for example, more intense precipitation events, ice storms, heat waves and droughts; reduced water levels in the Great Lakes; increased energy costs for cooling buildings; and threats to the health or survival of local plant and animal species. While the ECO believes that it is still critical to focus on mitigation, adaptation measures are also important, since atmospheric patterns and regional climates are changing and will continue to do so in this century as a consequence of the historical build-up and future emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The range of adaptation measures that could be implemented is broad, but examples could include revising standards, plans and codes affecting drainage systems or hydraulic structures such as dams, culverts, sewage treatment plants, water intake pipes and outflows. In future, such infrastructure may need to be able to withstand more intense precipitation events, or to function under lower river flows and lake levels, two phenomena that are forecast to occur in many parts of Canada under global climate change. An example of a structure designed with climate change in mind is the Confederation Bridge linking New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, which was built a metre higher than currently necessary to accommodate the anticipated sea level rise of this century.
The Province of Quebec has supported a research consortium called Ouranos to advance the understanding of climate change adaptation issues and requirements. This research has led to actions such as identifying coastal infrastructure that is vulnerable to erosion and sea level rise. In conjunction with the provincial transportation ministry, new standards of design are being devised for roadway barrier walls and backfilling along the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to take into account a changing climate. Road relocation is also being considered in some cases.
Adaptation measures should also be considered for Ontario’s ecosystems. Some of these measures could be as simple as applying what we currently think of as best management practices, like leaving generous green buffer zones – and not just the minimum required – around waterways to protect against greater erosion and siltation from more intense precipitation events. Silt can have an adverse effect on many fish, plant and amphibian species. A fuller tree canopy over streams and rivers could also help shelter cool-water ecosystems from rising summer temperatures. Larger and better connected forested areas in southern Ontario could create plant and animal migration routes to deal with the possibility that a species range could shift as a changing climate exerts pressure on habitats. Seed and genetic studies could help determine whether southern Ontario plants species can adapt to central and northern Ontario soils and geology.
For all of these reasons, the ECO felt compelled to inquire about the degree of provincial planning for adaptation to a changing climate.
Ontario’s adaptation initiatives
Before calling provincial ministries, the ECO first conducted a brief review of some water resource publications of both MOE and the Ministry of Natural Resources for references to revised standards or guidance about changes forecast in the climate – for instance, more intense precipitation events, lower snowfall and lower lake levels, and any implications. The ECO looked at documents about stormwater, water power planning and water taking, which are readily available on the ministries’ Web sites.
The search revealed that such policy documents contain little or no mention of projected climate change impacts. For example, MOE’s Stormwater Management Planning and Design Manual (2003) does not refer to the potential need to adapt infrastructure to accommodate a changing climate. MOE’s [Water Taking and Transfer Regulation under the OWRA|Permit to Take Water Manual]] (2005) and Guide to Permit to Take Water Application Form (2006) make no mention of climate change, although both refer to provisions for dealing with low water conditions. (These 2003 and 2005 manuals were reviewed in previous ECO annual reports.) A water taking best practices document prepared for MOE in 2002 did contain two brief mentions of climate change. MNR’s Water Management Planning Guidelines for Waterpower (2002) does not use the term “climate change.” A limited scan of key provincial water resource publications, summarizing essential policies and procedures, revealed virtually no mention of the need for precautions in the face of climate change.
When we contacted MOE, staff told the ECO that the ministry does not have a formal written plan or strategy dealing with adaptation to climate change. The closest was a 2005 publication called the National Climate Change Adaptation Framework, a document prepared by the Intergovernmental Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Working Group, a Canada-wide group of provincial and territorial ministry staff, mostly from natural resource and environment ministries. MOE is involved in some initiatives that advance an understanding of climate change impacts and adaptation. Foremost among these is the research network known as the Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Research Network, or C-CIARN. This is a national group that generates climate change knowledge by bringing together researchers and decision-makers from industry, government, and non-government organizations. The Network has been funded predominately by a federal ministry, Natural Resources Canada, though MOE has also provided financial support for C-CIARN in the past – in its first year of operation and for occasional undertakings thereafter (for instance, for study-specific support and intern funding). In 2006, C-CIARN published a report “Adapting to Climate Change/An Introduction for Canadian Municipalities,” which includes case studies of adaptation measures.
The ECO asked MOE for examples of ministry codes, standards, or guidance manuals that have been adjusted to deal with the forecasted changes in climate. MOE responded that it cooperates with the federal and other provincial governments, as in the initiatives described above, as well as with other Ontario ministries on adaptation initiatives. MOE cited examples of Ontario government initiatives that could help with climate change adaptation, including the requirement that cities prepare emergency response plans. Publications by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, aimed at municipalities and partly funded by MOE, describe how better planning can help cities to improve air quality.
The ECO notes a distinct lack of leadership in the Ministry of the Environment. Although the ministry is supposed to lead other ministries in the coordination of Ontario’s response to climate change, it was the Ministry of Natural Resources, instead, that created a two-page draft climate change strategy – including a seven-part list of elements that need to be fleshed out to create an adaptation strategy (see Help Ontarians Adapt, page 64.) This strategy was dated 2004 and remained in draft form as of April 2006.
Staff at the Ministry of Natural Resources referred to several initiatives related to climate change adaptation. Ministry staff have authored, co-authored or contributed to many publications on climate change and climate change adaptation. MNR provided the ECO with a 21-page list of publications discussing climate change in relation to over two dozen topics – for instance, mammals, birds, and water. MNR staff also participate in C-CIARN research.
Both MNR and MOE staff referred to participation in a series of coastal adaptation workshops sponsored by C-CIARN, Natural Resources Canada, and MNR over 2004-2006 as a significant adaptation outreach measure. This series involved five community-based workshops conducted in urban centres on the Great Lakes coastline. The workshop organizers, which included Conservation Authorities, succeeded in getting participation from local decision-makers like councilors and reeves. The workshop organizers plan to write up a summary document, detailing certain climate change phenomena and their impacts on human activities and ecology – for example, warmer water temperatures in lakes and rivers could lead to a probable shift in aquatic species as well as less cooling capacity for industries that use water for cooling purposes. MNR also conducts, on its own initiative, public education on the effects and impacts of a changing climate.
The ECO also asked MNR for specific examples of changes to infrastructure design standards or resource management guidance documents that would enhance adaptation to a changing climate. In the area of forestry, MNR has conducted research on opportunities for intensive forest management and also projected changes in forest fire patterns and frequency under a changing climate. MNR staff are working on Canada’s next national assessment report, due June 2006, for the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change.
|MNR's Strategy to Help Ontarians Adapt|
|The strategy created by the Ministry of Natural Resources identifies the need to prepare for natural disasters and develop and implement adaptation strategies. Accordingly, MNR will work to:
(Adapted from MNR’s “Climate Change and MNR: A [Draft] Strategy and Action Plan”)
Outdated Information on Public Websites
Finally, the ECO notes that some climate change publications offered on MNR and MOE Web sites are outdated and in need of revision or replacement. For example, Climate Change and Canadian Impacts: the Scientific Perspective, found on MOE’s Web site, is dated 1991. MOE’s Green Facts Sheet, Climate Change and Global Warming, was last updated in July 1997. MNR’s Web site publications are somewhat more recent – a number of major reports were published in the period 1998-2003 – but more recent publications are also available, such as journal articles written by MNR staff on climate change and forestry.
The ECO’s review found little evidence that provincial codes, policies and standards were being adjusted specifically to deal with forecast changes in temperature and precipitation as a consequence of global climate change – for example, revising provincial standards for drainage or hydraulic systems to deal with more intense precipitation events or lower stream and lake levels. However , MNR and MOE have been involved in a substantial number of publications and outreach efforts on the topics of climate change and adaptation. Together, this might be characterized as a study, then wait- and-see approach. The ECO feels that a more active approach is required. The threats posed to the built and natural environments from climate change are reasons for acting now. Another reason is the long lasting nature of infrastructure and land use decisions – once made, many are hard to change. One other reason that both MNR and MOE should be acting now and not waiting is the inclusion of the precautionary principle in the Statements of Environmental Values of both ministries. The precautionary principle is based on the notion that delaying action on an environmental threat in the face of scientific uncertainty is not a valid approach – decision-makers should act in favour of the environment. The ECO believes that incorporating some acknowledgment of a changing climate into these ministries’ codes, standards and practices of today would be a prudent exercise of this principle.
To increase transparency and accountability, the ECO recommends that MAH and MOE fully prescribe the Building Code Act and its regulations under the EBR for the purposes of commenting on proposals and applying for reviews.
|This is an article from the 2005/06 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.|
Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2006. "Adapting to a Changing Climate – Neglecting Our Basic Obligations?." Neglecting our Obligations, ECO Annual Report, 2005-06. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 59-65.