We believe the key to a better future is listening to and understanding the perspectives of others. This week, we asked Dr. Blair Feltmate, Associate Professor, Program Director Sustainability Practice; Chair Climate Change Adaptation Project Canada, University of Waterloo, to share his thoughts on Canada's response to climate change. We thank Blair for taking the time to answer our questions.
The views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect those of Suncor.
Two important questions facing Canada
One year has passed since major floods impacted Calgary and Toronto – accordingly, with the passage of time, and in light of sober second thought, maybe Canadians should reflect upon two particularly challenging climate change related questions: (1) is spending money to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a prudent choice for Canada?, and (2) should Canada double-down on efforts to embrace adaptation to prepare for climate change and extreme weather events?
It is important – indeed, mission critical to the future well-being of our country – to get answers to these two seminal questions correct, and to do so rapidly. Canada has yet to experience disastrous flooding – although Calgary and Toronto floods were substantive, they “pail” in comparison to those that are coming – 2013 floods were effectively warning shots. The new benchmark to which Canada should adjust, regarding flood preparation, will well exceed the Calgary flood – the science on this point is clear. Also, flooding is not a “Calgary” or “Toronto” issue – any city could be hit at any time. So, relative to this somewhat bleak reality, let’s consider whether mitigating GHGs makes sense for Canada, and the degree to which we might direct more resources to adaptation.
In Canada, to date, efforts to mitigate GHG emissions have realized some success, driven largely through ubiquitous energy efficiency programs, or technology shifts such as, for example, Ontario’s decision to remove coal from its electricity generation mix (as of 2014). As a result, in 2011, Canada’s GHG emissions were 702 megatonnes (MT – CO2e), which compared well relative to 2005 emissions of 737 MT. Despite early successes, Canada’s GHG emissions are now on an upward curve, with a forecast to emit 734 MT of GHGs by 2020 – although this elevated level of total emissions might seem lamentable, in the absence of mitigation 2020 total emissions would have exceeded 800 MT.
Canada’s ever increasing GHG emissions are being mirrored globally. To illustrate, the International Energy Agency documents that currently, over 80 per cent of world energy supply is derived from about one-third each of coal, oil and natural gas sources (i.e., fossil fuels) – by 2030, this supply mix will remain unchanged, however the total global carbon footprint will increase by about 20 per cent relative to current levels, due to the addition of about 1.5 billion more people to the planet over the next 15 years or so.
Thus, even if Canada were to embrace mitigation in a meaningful manner, such as through the large scale deployment of decentralized nuclear power generation – which most environmentalists, who often work against the environment, would never support (they would rather put a windmill above the entrance to a retail outlet store and claim success) – it would still be too little too late to curtail GHG loadings.
Recognizing that the climate change ship has sailed, we need to shift our focus and resource allocation away from mitigation, and embrace adaption, in a big way, now.
To date, in Canada, adaptation to climate change and extreme weather events has been the “poor cousin” to mitigation – i.e., most resources have been directed to mitigation versus adaptation.
In its most basic form, adaptation focuses on how to de-risk a system, such as a city, relative to extreme weather – and the big culprit on the Canadian landscape, by far, is flooding. To illustrate, for nine of the past 11 years claims have exceeded premiums in Canada’s property and casualty sector – those claims have been largely water related, mostly in the form of residential basement flooding. In the past five years in Canada, insurable catastrophic loss claims have exceeded $1 billion, and the upward trend on claims is continuing. This situation is not sustainable, and it has lead Canada to enter the early stages of an uninsurable housing market – i.e., insurers saying “we will no longer offer insurance in locality X, because the risk is too great.” By extension, a shrinking insurance market will negatively impact the mortgage market, because to qualify for a mortgage, you need house insurance.
The insurance sector, as the protagonist on the Canadian adaptation front, has identified several courses of action to help de-risk Canada relative to extreme precipitation: (1) develop up-to-date flood plain maps to give Canadians a sense of where not to build relative to current and future potential flooding, (2) retain natural infrastructure (e.g., wetlands) and weather-harden built infrastructure (e.g., diversion channels) to direct water to non-harmful locations within and around cities, (3) develop a home adaptation audit program to provide guidance to homeowners on how to safeguard their homes from flooding, and (4) modify building codes to ensure that the residential housing market and commercial properties take adaptation into account.
Mobilization on these four courses of action, by cities and towns across Canada, should be catalyzed now, as every day that we don’t adapt is a day we don’t have. Australia has found that for every $1 allocated to adaptation, $10 of avoided losses (or more) were realized – this is a pretty good ROI, and there is no reason to think this favourable return would not apply equally to Canada. With a sense of alacrity originally directed towards mitigating GHG emissions, Canada now needs to transition that energy towards adaptation if we are to avoid management by mega-disaster scenarios.
Currently, I fear that Canada is chasing the wrong climate change rabbit – for many, they are letting a religious-like zeal for the world as they might wish it to be, obfuscate reality, and in so doing unintentionally make a bad situation worse.