July 30, 2007

Adaptation becoming more critical to climate change plans, say EECO panelists

Adaptation to climate change still trails far behind mitigation in terms of both attention and resource allocation. But with North America more vulnerable to climate change impacts than often realized, this is a situation that needs to change, according to panelists participating in a session on "Adaptation: The Critical Unspoken Climate Change Phrase," at last month's Energy and Environment Conference (EECO) in Toronto.

The global average temperature is unequivocally rising, at a rate that is expected to increase between 1.8*C and 4*C by 2100. Over the next 20 years alone, an increase of 0.4*C is forecast, said Linda Mortsch, a senior researcher with Environment Canada and the Canadian lead author of the North American chapter of the Fourth Assessment Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in February (EcoWeek February 5, 2007).

Statistics like these make adaptation more relevant than mitigation for the near term, she noted, adding that the results of mitigation efforts will be more evident by 2100. At the present time, Mortsch continued, North America's capacity to adapt to climate change is in deficit, with four key sectors most likely to sustain the greatest impacts.

The combination of climate change-induced rising sea levels and increasing development and population growth in coastal areas increases the vulnerability of these areas, Mortsch noted, observing that current adaptation efforts are uneven and readiness for increased exposure to events such as flooding is poor.

Water resource management is also being affected by climate change, as supplies become more variable. Changes in timing and amounts of streamflows will have an impact on water treatment plant operations, among other things, she said.

The energy sector has been undergoing a transition in terms of electricity demand as the peak is shifting from winter (to meet heating requirements) to summer space cooling needs. Energy supplies, notably hydropower, will be affected by changes in hydrology brought about by a warming climate. While James Bay may benefit, Motrsch said the Great Lakes and major rivers will suffer. And wind and solar resources are not yet sufficient in quantity or consistency to fill the gap, she added.

Finally, infrastructure design needs to improve to maintain the long life and high value of North America's capital stock and avoid costly retrofits. Previous investments have been based on historical climate trends, a fact that may affect the vulnerability of various sectors to climate change impacts. The degreee to which North America remains vulnerable will depend on the timing and effectiveness of its adaptation, Mortsch said.

Consultant Armin Munevar of CH2MHill confirmed the water resources sector as one in which adaptation to climate change is critical, as water supply and quality, as well as competition for diverse uses will all be affected. Climate change also represents a major planning challenge, as the degree and nature of its impacts will be large, but uncertain.

The key, he said, is to incorporate climate change and its impacts into planning processes immediately. This can be done by assessing impacts and vulnerabilities using a series of climate change scenarios, or by assessing the thresholds or "coping bounds" of water systems. This will allow the development of strategies for managing risks, he explained.

The changing world climate has led to a dramatic increase in losses due to natural disasters such as floods, fires and storms, said Glenn McGillivray of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. Not only are there more people and property at risk, aging infrastructure is less able to cope with such events, he explained, noting that only 2% of Gross Domestic Product is being invested in replacing or upgrading infrastructure.

Since the 1970's, he said, there has been a twentyfold increase in the number and value of losses from climatic events: some 30 occurring in 1970 had risen to approximately 150 by 2005, including hurricanes, tornadoes, hailstorms, typoons, floods, fires, etc. Insured losses increased from less than $10 billion (U.S.) in 1970 to approximately $80 billion (U.S.) by 2005. McGillivray also pointed out that business impacts from such natural events can include the loss of a company's head offices.

From an industry perspective, Cara Clairman of Ontario Power Generation noted that companies need to consider both mitigation and adaptation. As a large final emitter, she acknowledged that OPG has focused most of its attention on mitigation, but has come to realize the need for a parallel path to address adaptation.

As it works toward the provincially-mandated closure of its coal-fired generating stations by 2014, Clairman said OPG's plan is to operate these facilities as efficiently as possible while they remain open. At the same time, it will be increasing its use of biofuels to replace coal, increasing supplies of nuclear power and hydropower (pending approval) and promoting energy efficiency as greenhouse gas reduction strategies. Concurrent adaptation activities include expanding OPG's biodiversity program to target threatened lands and pursue habitat restoration.

Research is being done as well to assess climate change impacts on OPG's current and future operations, for example modelling the effects on future water supplies for existing hydropower facilities in order to project future generation supply and mix. OPG will also need to know how future Great Lakes water levels and temperatures will affect its existing infrastructure for water cooling, as rising temperatures could make cooling towers unnecessary, Clairman noted. Both mitigation and adaptation efforts need to proceed together rather than in isolation from each other, she added.

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