Canada is ill-prepared for the increased flooding and extreme weather that will occur under climate change, and needs to act now or face much higher costs to fix damaged buildings and infrastructure in the future, a new report warns.
The federal government is set to announce major infrastructure programs in its fall update Tuesday, but Ottawa and the provinces have yet to properly assess how to make the country's transportation, electricity and water systems more resilient to the threat from climate change, the University of Waterloo's Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation says in a report to be released Monday.
The Intact Centre evaluated provincial efforts to mitigate disasters from the flooding that will be caused by extreme weather and rising sea levels. It concludes that, on the whole, Canada is not well-prepared and must take concerted action to reduce the threat that will escalate over time.
"The one factor that is not well understood in Canada is that every day we don't adapt is a day we don't have," said Blair Feltmate, the centre's head and a professor in the faculty of environment at the university.
"We do not have the luxury of time; we've got to move on this file immediately. … We must build adaptation into the system now because if we don't, the economic consequences and the social disruption it's going to bring to the country will be very substantial."
Prof. Feltmate said the cost preparing for natural disasters is relatively modest for new construction, while it is far more expensive to protect existing buildings and infrastructure such as power and water systems and housing subdivisions – though retrofitting may be less costly than paying for damages from extreme weather.
His report card on the provinces and the Yukon comes as federal, provincial and territorial governments work toward a pan-Canadian climate strategy, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scheduling a first ministers meeting for Dec. 9, when he hopes to conclude a deal.
Ottawa also pledged under the Paris climate agreement last December to prepare a national adaptation plan and communicate it to the United Nations with regular updates. This year's UN climate summit starts next week in Morocco, and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is expected to provide an update on Canada's progress in implementing the 2015 agreement.
The Prime Minister and premiers agreed in Vancouver last March to work toward an agreement that would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but would co-ordinate increasing efforts to mitigate the impacts of extreme-weather events that are expected to increase in intensity and frequency.
A report from a federal-provincial-territorial working group said climate impacts are already being felt across Canada and "pose significant risks to communities, health and well-being, the economy and the natural environment." The interim report was completed in June and recently obtained by The Globe and Mail; a final version is due to be released in the coming weeks.
The June report suggests governments are planning to embrace both short-term and long-term "adaptation" measures, including ensuring climate change is considered in infrastructure decisions and investing in projects that are specifically designed to address its impacts. Over the longer term, Canada needs to develop "authoritative, accessible and actionable information" on changing climate conditions, and to generate greater awareness, leadership and investment in adaptation, the working group paper said.
But that high-level commitment can get lost in the day-to-day business of building infrastructure and planning new subdivision or commercial buildings, Prof. Feltmate said.
The insurance industry is particularly concerned about rising costs for flood and other weather-related disasters, including this year's devastating fire in Fort McMurray, Alta. Payouts have soared and seven of the past eight years have seen insured costs from natural disasters exceeding $1-billion.
Prof. Feltmate's report surveyed each province and the Yukon on 12 factors related to preparedness to limit flood damage. They included flood-plain mapping and land-use planning; the availability of home adaptation audits and commercial property; and climate-related assessments of transportation, energy, drinking water and sewage systems.
He urged Ottawa and the provinces to each create a position of "chief adaptation officer," whose mandate would be to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in flood preparedness and produce regular audits of the jurisdiction's commitments and actions. He also recommended provinces restrict construction on flood plains, and where such building has occurred, take action to limit potential flood damage.