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True North: Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change in Northern Canada – Research

Recognizing the unique vulnerability of Canada’s North and the potential for climate change to compromise local and regional environments and communities, the NRT embarked on a focused policy research program to offer practical adaptation solutions. We studied how risk-management tools such as insurance building codes and disaster management can be applied proactively to ensure northern communities and critical infrastructures are able to adjust and adapt to the stresses of climate change.

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Recognizing the many economic, environmental, and social risks for Canada posed by a changing climate, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE or Round Table) embarked on a policy research program to consider climate change adaptation in the North. We focused the program on physical infrastructure in Canada’s North, and the potential to adjust existing risk-based mechanisms —codes, standards, and related instruments (CSRIs), insurance, and disaster management —to reduce infrastructure vulnerability through adaptation mainstreaming. In this way, we could combine a pressing issue -climate change- in a vulnerable region -the North- and examine known risk-based mechanisms- to adapt to a changing climate.

We looked at Canada’s North because of the region’s unique vulnerability, with and without climate change, and the expected developmental impacts an expanding economy will have on this region’s peoples and communities. Northern Canadians are among the first to experience how changing climate conditions can be rapid, surprising, and more significant than the projections of the climate science of the day. Systems that support adaptation, such as institutions and planning mechanisms, are less developed and robust in northern Canada than in other parts of the country. Constraints in access to financial and human resources affect northerners’ ability to implement adaptive measures. Challenges faced everyday by northern Canadians from extreme cold and a unique physical reality of permafrost, sea ice, and community isolation, combine to make this region notable for such a study.

We selected physical infrastructure because of the risks posed to it by climate change from permafrost degradation, for example; because of the costs involved in building and maintaining it; because of its crucial role in all dimensions of economic and social life for any community; and because it is typically designed and operated over lifespans of many decades. From an economic point of view alone, systematically addressing emerging climate risks to Canada’s infrastructure makes sense. According to Environment Canada,“ore than 5 trillion dollars’worth of aging infrastructure could be at risk from a changing climate. Over the coming decade, billions of dollars could be invested in new infrastructure projects, and these structures will need to be designed and built to withstand changing climate conditions.”

We focused on codes, standards, and related instruments (CSRIs), insurance, and disaster management as examples of existing risk-based mechanisms that governments could adjust to support adaptation to climate change. These are then strong examples of our interest in pursuing mainstreaming to facilitate climate change adaptation. All three are used to one degree or another already throughout Canada, and are familiar to governments at all levels. A brief explanation of each risk-based mechanism and their relationship to adaptation follows:

  • CSRIs account for a significant proportion of the rules that apply to infrastructure in Canada. Although often invisible to the public, they guide all phases of the infrastructure lifecycle from design to construction to maintenance by specifying end-product performance or material requirements. CSRIs incorporate numerous assumptions and directives in relation to the climate and weather conditions (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind), climate-related events (flooding, freeze-thaw cycles, etc.), and environmental conditions that infrastructure must withstand. Thus, the scope for integrating climate-related risks into decision rules is significant.
  • Insurance is a financial mechanism that supports society’s management of risk, including the risk of disruption of services caused by weather-related damage to buildings and other types of infrastructure. The availability and affordability of insurance communicates the nature, magnitude, and frequency of risk. A changing climate affects the risks to which Canadians and their physical assets and economies are exposed, and, the eventual availability, cost, and character of insurance for addressing these risks. If designed optimally, insurance fosters a culture of risk reduction.
  • Protecting its citizens and their property from natural and human-caused disasters has long been one of government’s fundamental roles, a role that provides the rationale for services as varied as national defence, law enforcement, weather forecasting, and firefighting. Disaster management includes approaches to prevent disasters, increase a community’s preparedness and response capacity during a disaster, and help a community recover after a disaster. The strong links between climate change adaptation and disaster management are becoming increasingly evident.