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BC’s Climate Adaptation Strategy: Wasting a Crisis

By Alex Boston

Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Unfortunately, the BC Government has wasted the biggest climate disasters in Canadian history with its new Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy, released on June 20, 2022.

BC’s Adaptation Strategy fails to acknowledge underlying vulnerabilities and take decisive action to make course corrections to prevent future catastrophes.

There were over 600 deaths attributed to B.C.’s record-setting heat dome in June 2021. This latest strategy leaves the province exposed to similar disasters in the future: comparable heat wave mortalities and multibillion-dollar price tags from catastrophic flooding.

Today’s provincial policies incentivize communities to grow in ways that are fiscally, socially and environmentally unsustainable. A disproportionate share of growth is going into peripheral forest and farmland far from job centres, increasing congestion and carbon. The loss of forest canopy, greenspace and farmland loss increases vulnerability of buildings, infrastructure and people to flooding and extreme heat events. Low-density peripheral development does not generate the revenue in development charges, property tax and utility fees to build, operate and replace the infrastructure, growing burgeoning municipal infrastructure deficits.

Urban forests are critical for mitigating heat wave mortalities and flood risks. Two hundred square kilometres of forest has been permanently lost over the last decade across B.C. due to urban growth patterns (NRCan, 2021).

Agricultural land protection is vital for preserving food security and guarding against price shocks from climate impacts, which are already contributing to rising household spending. Land allocated to agriculture has declined by three thousand square kilometres over the last ten years (Stats Can, 2022). While some is fallow, large swaths of farmland have been lost to urban growth.

The fastest growing household in B.C. is the one-person household. A disproportionate share—60 per cent—of solos in single detached homes are seniors, the largest at-risk population in extreme heat. Focusing growth in nodes and corridors and gently intensifying single family neighbourhoods with more opportunities for social connection is critical for the fiscal, social and ecological health of B.C. communities.

The BC Coroners Service appointed a multi-disciplinary expert panel to review mortalities during the heat dome and developed actionable recommendations to strengthen the emergency response and prevent future disasters.

The report found that most of the deceased were seniors, living alone, socially isolated with chronic health conditions and social inequities. The deaths were concentrated in neighbourhoods with weak urban tree canopy and in homes with inadequate cooling systems. The BC Government has proactively responded with a stepped up emergency response action plan and an excellent heat preparedness guide.

The BC Coroners Death Panel Report outlined robust provincial policy recommendations for long-term risk mitigation that are much more critical for preventing future full-blown emergencies.

The Provincial Adaptation Strategy failed to even acknowledge the recommendations: protecting and restoring urban tree canopy, strengthening energy performance and cooling in existing residential buildings with an emphasis on the least energy efficient stock and lowest income households, and strengthening new building performance.

More investment and innovative financial instruments are necessary to prepare for future extreme weather events. At the same time, sustainable land use is the lowest cost strategy wedge for reducing vulnerability to climate impacts and driving deep emission reductions. Innovative land use policies also advance multiple other objectives: reducing household transportation spending, increasing housing affordability, managing congestion and controlling civic infrastructure deficits. The BC Government is failing to take decisive action in a manner that systemically addresses multiple problems while respecting taxpayer constraints.

Commendably, in the CleanBC Roadmap to 2030, the Province committed to review the Local Government Act and craft “Climate Lenses” for Official Community Plans and Regional Growth Strategies to drive deep GHG reductions. Along with updated building standards to reflect the changing climate, changes to transportation spending policy and land use legislation have the greatest potential to help communities adapt to climate change and contribute to deep GHG reductions.

Education, voluntary action and modest spending—the emphasis of the new Adaptation Strategy—is all important, but it’s shockingly inadequate given that just last year B.C. was the epicentre of the most profound climate catastrophes in contemporary Canadian history.

The Adaptation Strategy promises band aids for a patient hemorrhaging from multiple limbs. The BC Government needs to circle back to review Roadmap to 2030 commitments, build on its diagnosis and fill a wholesome prescription on sustainable land use.

Sustainable urban planning and infrastructure design including green roofs and facades, networks of parks and open spaces, management of urban forests and wetlands, urban agriculture, and water-sensitive design can deliver both mitigation and adaptation benefits in settlements. These options can also reduce flood risks, pressure on urban sewer systems, urban heat island effects, and can deliver health benefits from reduced air pollution.”

~ IPCC, Assessment Report 6, Working Group II, 2022

REFERENCES  

BC’s Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy

Extreme Heat and Human Mortality: A Review of Heat-Related Deaths in B.C. in Summer 2021 

BCCDC’s Extreme Heat Preparedness Guide

Renewable Cities Submission to BC Coroners Service

CleanBC Roadmap to 2030: Compelling Destination, Big Roadside Attractions & Cautionary Signs For B.C. Communities