Ontario’s assessment-heavy approach only ‘first step’ in climate change adaptation, warns report

By Palak Mangat August 22, 2022

Tight cash flow, a lack of access to data and “limited political will” is holding back Canada’s most populous province in making good on steps toward climate change adaptation, a federal analysis says.

Published last week by Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, the 105-page document paints a picture of an “adaptation deficit” in Ontario. It’s the latest in a series of regional breakdowns, with northern Canada’s chapter yet to be shared.

While there are some examples of implementation of measures, the report says that generally, “there is little evidence of adaptation being mainstreamed into decision-making” — with provincial officials instead placing an emphasis on defining risks and vulnerabilities across communities.

The report suggests that cities, public health units, conservation authorities and Indigenous communities are stepping up to the plate to “lead” the way, rather than the province, in tackling climate change within their jurisdictions.

While such assessments are useful in showing which infrastructure is vulnerable to climate change and needs to be more resilient, the report cautions they are just the “first step” toward a comprehensive adaptation strategy.

Federal experts pointed out that since 2007, just over 20 assessments have been carried out in Ontario as part of Ottawa’s efforts to train engineers on how they should base their decisions on the effects of climate change, “most” of which used the Public Infrastructure Engineer Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) protocol. A breakdown shows one in 2015 was provincewide; two were carried out in 2008; and the most recent one was in 2020 at Kasabonika Lake First Nation.

Published last week by Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, a 105-page federal analysis paints a picture of an “adaptation deficit” in Ontario. (Facebook/Jonathan Wilkinson)

Created by Engineers Canada and funded by Wilkinson’s department, some First Nations communities are also adopting the program for their regions with a protocol expected to be released this summer, the report says.

It urges assessments flowing from the protocol to show which infrastructure systems will be compromised at certain thresholds when exposed to extreme weather conditions, and raise awareness of risks among “senior managers.” That should serve as a “catalyst” for politicians to move quicker on adaptation measures.

Ontario Crown corporation Metrolinx created its adaptation strategy based on an assessment under the protocol in 2018, though its earliest applications date back to 2007 in other parts of the world.

That strategy recommended seven adaptation measures to bolster resilience across the rail network, including growing culvert sizes and stormwater capacity to curb flooding risks; lay rail down at temperatures of 37.8 degrees celsius to preheat tracks and avoid the risk of “sun kinks” during the summers; and update operational rules for trains in cases of flooding.

While Metrolinx’s plan was the first of its kind for rail infrastructure and deemed a “good” example for other Ontario cities to follow, its infrastructure continues to suffer from incidents of flooding, leaving many of its customers frustrated. In February, Long Branch GO station was flooded due to frozen ground and heavy rainfall, with a spokesperson explaining that pumps “just couldn’t keep up.” The station was shut down for a couple of hours before reopening.

Southern Ontario’s vulnerability to flooding will have “cascading” economic and social impacts, the feds say, and resilient infrastructure is required to keep society “well-functioning.”

Doing so will require “addressing the interdependencies that exist between different types of infrastructure, such as water, transportation, energy and telecommunications.”

The steadily warming Great Lakes are also a key site where adaptation strategies need to be deployed, as algae blooms increase and invasive species expand their range northward.

Coastal wetlands within the Great Lakes Basin are among the most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change in southern Ontario, per the report, yet efforts to address climate change’s impact on the basin are currently “fragmented.”

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault plans to introduce Canada’s inaugural adaptation strategy by the end of this year.