April 10, 2006

Co-operation, flexible approach needed to develop climate change adaptation strategies

Adaptation strategies to deal with the effects of climate change are just as important as actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the most effective and successful strategies will take a holistic approach requiring the co-operation of all levels of government, says the Conference Board of Canada in a new report, Adapting to Climate Change: Is Canada Ready?

As part of its work linking policy and climate change issues, the Conference Board, with the co-operation of Natural Resources Canada, investigated the country's preparedness to deal with the impacts of climate change. Its study found that not only is more research needed to determine these impacts, better use should be made of the research that does exist. In addition, policy makers need better estimates of both the financial impacts of climate change on the country's assets and the costs of implementing adaptation strategies.

Climate change impacts will vary widely in nature and severity depending on location, notes the report. Within the next two decades, Canada could face flooding along its seacoasts and lower water levels in the Great Lakes and on the Prairies. With the Arctic ice cap melting, the fabled Northwest Passage may open to year-round navigation. While this will create economic opportunities, it will also raise environmental, sovereignty and security concerns.

Adaptation strategies need not be dramatic or disruptive, however. They may include new or upgraded infrastructure projects: past examples include the Winnipeg floodway and climate change measures applied to the Confederation Bridge construction). They may also result in long-term changes to established practices, such as improved building codes and land use planning, as occurred in southern Ontario after Hurricane Hazel in 1954.

The report points out that responding to climate change must involve both mitigation, i.e. initiatives to reduce GHG emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, and adaptation. The latter, it says, involves collecting policies, actions and research to modify existing facilities and structures in order to minimize future disruptions caused by climate change impacts.

"Excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere make some climate change inevitable. Adapting to these changes requires co-operation from all levels of government and a flexible approach to fit different regions of the country," said John Roberts, the Conference Board's director of environment, energy and transportation research.

Adaptation is not a new or even a special concept. What is innovative, says the report, is the incorporation of adaptation to future climate risk into policy-making. Because adaptation efforts occur within a continuum, it adds, some issues will have to be addressed sooner while others will be far enough in the future to allow more staged, gradual policy responses.

Determining the costs of climate change damage and adaptation measures is fundamental to sound policy decisions. The Conference Board study introduces the "economic value at risk" concept as a means of assessing the implications of climate change and deciding on possible adaptation approaches. The economic value at risk is broadly synonymous with the cost of climate change.

The cost of climate change can be quantified as the economic value of asset losses, while the economic value at risk is the estimated potential cost, the risk aspect implying varying degrees of uncertainty in the estimates, explains the report. Both these concepts differ from the adaptation cost, which is defined as the expenditure needed to replace an existing structure or facility with one suitable for the new conditions.

More information will be needed before the full costs of climate change can be estimated and adaptation strategies chosen. In this regard, the report cites three key thrusts. The first is additional climate change scenario research, which is needed in order to better understand and locate biophysical impacts. This data will enhance the economic cost-benefit analysis of adaptation options. The second thrust is research into technology and design innovations for buildings and other long-term facilities. And the third is a comprehensive assessment of current regulations to determine their suitability.

Many segments of society will be called on to respond to climate change and governments will need to play a co-ordinating role. Adaptation measures have the capacity to minimize damage or take advantage of opportunities, and government has a role to play in both cases. The report says funding direct physical and economic research into adaptation measures, both nationally and regionally, should be a goal of federal government policy. Along with research, its policy intervention should focus on partnerships, regulatory structures and adaptation culture.

The 23-page report was released in Vancouver on March 30 at a meeting of the Private Sector Roundtable on Adaptation to Climate Change. The roundtable is a group of business leaders invited by the Conference Board to begin discussions about incorporating adaptation to climate change into their business plans. More information is available from the Conference Board of Canada, 613/526-3280, FAX 613/526-4857, Web site www.conferenceboard.ca.

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