Building a climate resilient Canada

By Mikaël Akimowicz

March 27, 2018

On Wednesday March, 21st 2017, EcoWest organized a one-day seminar on climate change and opportunities to improve the resiliency of communities in Canada. A variety of backgrounds were represented (i.e., conservation practitioners, planners, and academics). The morning sessions were dedicated to presentations whereas in the afternoon we had the opportunity to participate in two different round tables among the four that were proposed and which tackled flooding preparedness, urban storm water management, human capital for planning frameworks, and regulations that can support resiliency.

After a long day of permanent intellectual stimulation (I commend the organizers for that), the main take-away of the day was, in my opinion, the importance of understanding natural processes to use them in comprehensive integrated frameworks based on systemic approaches, instead of simplistically opposing them in shortsighted and often incomplete causal approaches.

H. Venema and J. McConnell presented an interesting piece on multi-functional approaches to plan climate-resilient investment. Climate change is occurring faster in Canada than anywhere else in the world, meaning that extreme events will occur much more frequently in the coming years. Therefore, infrastructure has to be conceptualized in a way that better allows for mitigating that uncertainty. For them the key concept here is multi-functionality, an approach that emphasizes the benefits that can result from some activities.

Indeed, most human activities have side-effects, which are sometimes called externalities. Although some of these externalities are negative — e.g., pollution — others are positive — e.g., maintaining biodiversity, meaning that activities with positive externalities are beneficial for other activities. Genuine planning, therefore, aims to facilitate synergies among activities by increasing the production of positive externalities and reducing the production of negative externalities. This approach has been extensively used in the European Union for agricultural and rural policies; exploring EU experiences could help design better policies in Canada.

Image from Pixabay

The two presenters developed the critical role played by agriculture in this context, and re-purposed the role of agriculture to not only an activity that produces food and fiber but also furnishes positive externalities that contribute to mitigating climate change. More specifically, agriculture can provide and sustain ecosystemic services that are natural processes which fulfill functions that are currently provided artificially. The interesting point is that effects are usually cumulative, one good practice improves the impact of another one.

For instance, when a soil lacks nitrogen, we add nitrogen either industrially produced or extracted from distant places, which calls into question the sustainability of the production process. Instead, creating a favorable space for plants and microorganisms that naturally generate nitrogen to increase the likelihood of their presence in the soil would help reduce this negative impact of the current production process. Similarly, adopting practices that improve the structure of the soil instead of impoverishing it can contribute to improving the capacity of soils to retain water and overall reduce run-offs. In this case, the cumulative effect is that microorganisms help maintain the structure of the soil, which by retaining more water supports the development of additional microorganisms.

This point of view was strengthened by R. Canart who strongly insisted on re-building the organic matter contained in soils. Most current farming practices do not pay much attention to organic soil matter and, as a result, the amount of organic soil matter has decreased; whereas an average prairie soil should contain approximately 12% of organic matter, current prairie soils contain on average 6% of organic matter. As a result, prairie soils are less fertile and more incline to erosion, two effects that, like positive externalities, are cumulative; they tend to create a vicious circle that needs to be broken.

Fortunately, localized projects are going and experiments are implemented. These on-site experiment are beneficial to build a place-based/contextualized knowledge that can benefit other farmers. Stereotypically conceived as solutions that can only be adopted on small farms, he highlighted that large farms can significantly benefit from those practices and mentioned the existence of a 6000 acres farm in Saskatchewan that has engaged in large-scale experimentation. Indeed, as business managers, farmers are much more likely to adopt practices that are financially beneficial; unfortunately, financial returns resulting from the adoption of such practices (e.g., agroecology) are usually long-term benefits that do not provide strong incentives for farmers on the short run.

Image from Pixabay

These perspectives resonated well with the intervention of S. Madden who delivered a more general speech on infrastructure. For her, investment in infrastructure has to increase rapidly. Given the cumulative nature of undesirable effects mentioned above, she stated that one dollar invested nowadays is worth four dollars invested in the future (though she did not give a specific time period). Bottom-line no decision is extremely expensive. One of her main points was to consider the life duration of infrastructure and try to favor flexible infrastructure whose life expectancy can be extended. Environmental infrastructure based on re-purposed agriculture sounded like a good example but no clear connection was made.

Then, more technical discussions around planning took place. An afternoon round table, in particular, discussed the opportunities offered by municipal by-laws and how zoning can allow the design of more resilient communities.

  • Land reserve: each time a piece of land is developed, a percentage of that land can be used by the municipality to promote alternative land uses such as parks.
  • Hazard lands: if considered too risky for development due to the occurrences of extreme events such as floods, pieces of land can be excluded from development and alternative land uses can be promoted such as recreational football fields or biodiversity conservation areas.
  • Secondary plans: this second layer of planning addresses specific issues in areas where the general framework provided by the Official municipal plan is not detailed enough or could be inconsistent.
  • Development agreement: a development permit can be granted only if specific conditions are respected. The constraints run with the property and opportunities to break the agreement exist but are severely controlled.

I would like to commend EcoWest for their organization and the quality of the information that was delivered. More information can be found here.