How Ontario cities battle climate change

By Daniel Kitts - Published on December 1, 2015
cars driving in torrential rain
Climate change is causing more intense weather. Heavier snowfall, increased flooding and heat waves are Ontario's main concerns.

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As world leaders meet in Paris for talks on climate change, many Ontario municipalities have already been forced to adapt to rising global temperatures and the resulting extreme weather.

In 2012, Hamilton experienced a so-called 1,000-year storm when 150 mm of rain fell in three hours. The following year, a month’s worth of rainfall poured onto Toronto in one evening, causing nearly $1 billion in damage. And communities all along the Great Lakes basin are experiencing a sustained water level drop since the late 1990s, threatening tourism and industry.

Freak weather can happen anytime, but scientists say rising global temperatures are causing an upsurge of intense storms. Even if the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris leads to a significant worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is already here and cities in Ontario and across the world will face a more hostile environment for years to come. 

“The resiliency of our cities all across our nation is being challenged,” says Raymond Louie, president of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. “In areas where we wouldn’t expect to have high winds or flooding or drought conditions or torrential rains, it’s now happening.”

Adapting to climate change can be complex undertaking for cities, says Christina Schwantes, adaptation and resilience planner at ICLEI Canada, an association of local governments committed to improvements in environmental sustainability. Heavier rains may require building new storm sewers. A different freeze-thaw cycle may put added strain on roads and buildings, forcing the adoption of new construction practices and materials. And longer heat waves can require extra resources to take care of populations vulnerable to extreme temperatures, such as seniors, children and individuals living on low income, says Schwantes.

When cities are planning their climate change adaptation, “we like them to spend a lot of time addressing the impact on vulnerable populations,” she says. “Because for something like a heat wave they would be most often more dramatically affected by these changes in weather. There could be a lack of air conditioning. Or their housing situation could make them more vulnerable.”

Adapting to climate change can be expensive. Following a 2014 storm in Burlington that dumped 190 mm of rain and flooded 3,500 houses – including the home of Mayor Rick Goldring – the city and Halton Region are spending more than $100 million on upgrades to sewer and storm water systems, such as building larger creek culverts and disconnecting home downspouts that run into the sewer system and can overload it in times of heavy rain.

“Twenty years ago, the number one claim for homeowners’ insurance was fire, and now it’s water-related,” says Goldring.

Yet preparing for extreme weather can also involve seemingly small steps: Schwantes says getting residents to take flood protection measures, such as moving valuable belongings out of their basements, can affect the amount of property damage caused by climate change.

Heavier snowfall, increased flooding and heat waves are the main concerns for Ontario communities, but no two will face the same climate change challenges, Schwantes says.

“Having them understand a bit of the science behind the risks that they actually face at a localized level is important,” she says.

Oakville has already developed and approved a climate change strategy based on a predicted average temperature increase of 2.6 degrees and a 5.1 per cent increase in rainfall by 2050. Several weather events in and around the town such as the 2013 ice storm and the 2014 Burlington storm underlined the need for a plan, says Cindy Toth, Oakville’s director of environmental policy. 

“[The storms] made us pay a lot more attention to extreme weather preparedness, identifying our vulnerabilities with our urban forest and our storm water management,” she says. “We’re not really going to argue about climate change. There is a strong understanding within this community that there is climate change.”

One key concern for Oakville when it comes to the future climate is the town’s tree canopy. Toth says the urban forest is threatened not only by extreme weather events that can damage and uproot trees, but also invasive species that can take hold in a warmer climate. The town is already dealing with an emerald ash borer infestation. The community’s climate change strategy includes updating landscape standards to ensure trees and shrubs are planted with adequate topsoil to ensure long-term survival, and only planting hardy species tolerant of urban conditions and rising temperatures.

Other Ontario communities that have adaptation plans in place or are in the process of putting them together include Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, Windsor, Essex, and Thunder Bay.

Cities are also drawing up plans to help slow climate change by reducing their carbon footprint. In 2014 and 2015, communities in the province saved 5,250 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide by installing efficient LED streetlights, according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. And some cities have set long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets. Among the most ambitious local governments are Guelph, which wants a 50 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2031, and Oxford County, which has committed to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.  

From powering municipal buildings and vehicles, to developing public transit and land use policies, it’s calculated municipalities have direct or indirect control of 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Goldring, whose city has a Community Energy Plan to reduce energy use over a 20-year period, says the planning Burlington is doing today will have a tremendous impact on energy use in the decades to come.

“We’re going to build around GO Transit stations, we’re going to encourage alternative forms of transportation by investing appropriately in transit, but also make sure that new neighbourhoods are walkable and bike friendly,” he says.

Hundreds of municipal politicians from around the world are at the Paris conference. Louie, one of those attending, says that while cities are key partners in the global efforts on climate change, they will need more support from higher levels of government to do the job right. This is especially the case for smaller communities that have limited resources but must adapt to a changing environment like everybody else.

“They can’t afford to make any mistakes given their limited amount of money,” he says. “That’s really true for all municipalities but even more so for small local governments.”

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