Assessing climate change impacts

Considering climate change effects in environmental impact assessments is an important shift in provincial requirements. But how can we best integrate this information, with no formal guidelines to draw on?

The cost of climate change is increasing markedly. Globally, it is estimated that the median social cost of carbon emissions will rise to $417 USD per ton of CO2, and that 50 billion tons of CO2 are expected to be emitted annually by 2050, for a total cost of $21 trillion.

Canada may face an even more costly challenge than other nations. A 2019 report from Environment and Climate Change Canada concluded that Canada is warming at twice the average global rate, and the Canadian Arctic is warming at three times the global rate. We have big changes coming, and with a vast diversity of landscapes comes a vast diversity of climate-related hazards to which we are exposed: sea level rise and associated coastal impacts, fluvial flooding, landslides, ice storms, tornadoes, forest fires and permafrost degradation, among others.

Recently in Canada, different provincial governments (e.g. Ontario, New Brunswick) have started to expect climate change considerations in environmental impact assessments (EIAs), a movement one can observe worldwide (e.g. United Kingdoms, Europe, Australia). In 2018, Quebec’s government published an appendix to the EIA requirement in the Environment Quality Act (Bill Q-2, article 31.3) requiring EIAs to include the impacts of the project on climate change (i.e., greenhouse gas emissions) as well as the impacts of climate change on the project (e.g., sea level rise on a coastal road project). While the former requirement is usually framed by international standard for greenhouse gas emissions such as ISO 14064, the latter requirement is often lacking guidelines. Without clear guidelines, consultants and others working on EIAs are left to evaluate and integrate the effects of climate change on a project in an unstructured fashion. What are some strategies to effectively meet and exceed this relatively open-ended government requirement?

 

Integrating climate change information

WSP’s climate change specialists are involved in local and international EIAs on a variety of projects, including mines, landfills, and power lines, in diverse geographic contexts ranging from permafrost environments to the African savanna.

We have built our approach to consider the effects of climate change on a project from our experience with the Climate Lens Assessment, which is a requirement to access certain Infrastructure Canada funding, and the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) protocol, which is a protocol from Engineers Canada to evaluate the climate change resiliency of infrastructure. Our EIA approach enables us to meet government requirements, strategically address climate effects on a project in the absence of a regulatory structure, and build climate change resilience into projects.

 

After a year of practice, our team has underlined five key points to effectively integrate information about the effects of climate change into an EIA.

1) Understand the expected regional impacts of climate change

Norms and codes are designed with previous climate conditions in mind. The increased stresses from climate shifts and extremes can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and create new ones. The new requirement to consider climate change in EIA is an additional obstacle; therefore, sharing data on expected climate impacts in an understandable way is paramount for all stakeholders to appreciate the importance of climate change resiliency for the project. Educating stakeholders on future climate conditions includes illustrating trends in major climate variables and discussing the way that we deal with uncertainties, from future greenhouse gas scenarios to climate model designs (Charron, 2014).

 

2) Adopt a multidisciplinary approach

Climate change can affect components of a project’s infrastructure but also the people, economics, and/or the environment. At WSP, our teams conduct our risk assessments with inputs from engineers, architects, planners, Geographic Information System (GIS) specialists, and/or ecologists to leave no stones unturned and assess the interacting components.

 

3) Include stakeholders and the design team in assessing the severity of climate hazards and associated levels of risk

One of the lessons learned from our previous assessments is that climate change resilience is often intrinsically included in the project, whether it be in the design, management practices or emergency response plans. The probability of hazards and the severity of consequences should be discussed with stakeholders, along with the mitigation measures already in place. This step is critical in providing useful and applicable recommendations.

 

4) Put the emphasis on opportunities

Climate change, while often devastating, can have beneficial impacts on projects. A longer growing season can favour biomass production atop a landfill, with the potential of increasing the protection of the cover. Increased annual temperature in Northern Canada or areas with intense winters can increase the days of operation. Climate change resilience is as much about mitigating the vulnerabilities as it is about the capacity to capitalize on these opportunities.

 

5) Be aware that the report will be used in public consultations

Following the submission of an EIA, the provincial government launches public consultations on each project. As climate change experts, it is our responsibility to be as thorough and accurate as possible in our risk assessment. However, risk perception varies within social groups and individuals. Phrasing and wording in the climate change impacts assessment can have a profound effect on the social acceptability of the project. For example, we first implemented a five-level scale to rate the severity of climate change consequences using the terms “minor, significant, severe, critical, extreme”. We then switched to the less dramatic terms “very low, low, moderate, high, very high” as proposed by Infrastructure Canada’s Climate Lens.

 

Including climate change impacts in EIA should, and will, become a standard practice at the provincial, national, and international levels, and will enhance the resilience of the projects and the surrounding communities. WSP’s climate change specialists are pleased to be part of developing novel approaches that are in line with WSP’s Future Ready® Program and empower our clients to take action in mitigating climate change impacts and building a more sustainable future.

 

Bibliography

Charron, I. (2014). A Guidebook on Climate Scenarios: Using Climate Information to Guide Adaptation Research and Decisions. Ouranos, 86 p.

Ricke, K., Drouet, L., Caldeira, K., & Tavoni, M. (2018). Country-level social cost of carbon. Nature Climate Change, 8(10), 895.


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