Skip to content

What's in Canada's new climate adaptation strategy?

Canada has released its plan to adapt to a changing planet. Experts say it's up to all levels of government and ordinary Canadians to see it through.
Abby flooding sandbag
Jeff Daigneault fills sandbags for neighbours in Abbotsford, B.C., during one of the devastating floods in living memory, Nov. 16, 2021. Canada's new adaptation strategy looks to prevent or lower the risk of such disasters before the sand bags come out.

Canada has released its first ever unified plan to adapt to a changing climate and confront the flooding, increasingly intense wildfires, and deadly heat waves that have already begun to devastate parts of the country in recent years.

The long-awaited National Adaptation Strategy, released Thursday, comes with $1.6 billion in new federal funding meant to help maintain and climate-proof public infrastructure, reduce the impacts of climate-driven disaster, and restore ecosystems that act as a bulwark against natural cataclysm. The money is also meant to support workers, the economy and protect people’s health. 

“The fight against climate change has reached our doorstep,” Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said in a statement. “We must not only reduce the emissions that cause climate change, we must also adapt to the changes that are upon us.” 

Research from the Canadian Climate Institute has shown every dollar spent on adapting to climate change saves up to $15 in costs down the road.

The new plan earmarks up to $530 million for a Green Municipal Fund so municipalities can launch adaptation projects that tackle local threats. The federal government says that money should lead to a minimum of 1,400 community-based projects by 2031.

Other funds will go to data services that can help experts model climate change and assess what’s coming across the whole country. 

At $489 million, one of the larger chunks of money will top up the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, which supports community infrastructure to protect from natural hazards like wildfires.

Over $280 million has been set aside to establish a Centre of Excellence for Wildland Fire Innovation and Resilience, and roughly $164 million will help Canada update its national flood-hazard maps. Another almost $30 million will go toward improving preparedness for heat waves. 

Many groups across the country applauded the plan for confronting the growing sense of financial loss. 

“The gauntlet is now thrown,” said the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s (IBC) Craig Stewart in a written statement. “No other country has proposed such a comprehensive suite of adaptation targets.”

The sum of money announced Thursday pales in comparison to what’s been spent in disaster funding over the past several years. Since the 1970s, federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements have paid out $7.4 billion. But most have occurred in the past decade and outstanding liabilities through the program are now thought to exceed $12 billion.

Private insurers have also seen spiralling payouts in recent years. In the 25 years from 1983 to 2008, Canadian insurers paid out an average of $422 million a year. Since then, insurance claims due to severe weather have more than quadrupled, with catastrophic losses climbing to $2 billion, according to the IBC. 

Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, says that’s just the beginning. His research institute has added up insurance claims, government payouts and the losses of people who have slipped between the cracks. Altogether, they calculate Canada suffers roughly $5 billion in direct damages from extreme climate events every year. And that doesn’t include indirect damages like someone displaced by wildfire who is unable to work or forced to pay additional expenses. 

“The data going back to the 1980s shows loss and damages have doubled every five to 10 years, and doubled and then doubled again, and again,” Kovacs said. “A lot of that is preventable.”

Modelling from the Canadian Climate Institute suggests climate change will wipe $25 billion off Canada’s gross domestic product within two years. And by mid-century, those annual losses could rise to between $78 and $101 billion.

All the more reason to invest now, said Kovacs, who consulted on the plan and has been waiting 30 years for Canada to sketch out a coordinated national path to avoid some of those rising costs. He said the federal government did a good job listening to experts and prioritizing public infrastructure like roads, sewers and buildings.

“I’m excited that Canada has a plan,” Kovacs added. “Is there enough money in there? I’d like more.”

Some environmental groups, such as Nature Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, largely welcomed the national strategy.

“More emphasis is needed, however, in protecting natural ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands and wetlands, as part of climate adaptation and halting and reversing biodiversity loss,” wrote a David Suzuki Foundation spokesperson in a press release. 

Others said they were looking for explicit plans to deal with a number of risks. Climate Proof Canada — a coalition of over 30 groups representing researchers, the insurance industry, local governments and Indigenous people — said it had called on the government to prioritize: 

  • protecting 300,000 homes at highest risk of riverfront and coastal flooding by 2028. Protection would come in the form of relocation for some, and community-based protection for others;
  • developing community protection plans by 2028 for the 15 per cent of communities facing the highest risk from wildfires;
  • tasking Health Canada to start tracking hospitalizations and deaths from extreme heat, while taking a number of actions to reduce mortality by 70 per cent and hospitalizations by 50 per cent by 2028; and
  • setting deadlines for people to return to their homes after a disaster — two years for an extreme event and one year for moderate events. 

Of Climate Proof Canada’s six recommendations for the National Adaptation Strategy, only one — the recommendation to review an action plan every five years — was directly reflected in the document, according to Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate-resilient infrastructure at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation.

She said the federal document touches on Climate Proof Canada's other recommendations using different numbers and targets.

“We do have actions for flood, wildfire and heat. There is action for nature,” said Eyquem, whose group is part of the Climate Proof Canada coalition. “But they’re not presented in the same way.”

In addition to the adaptation strategy, which encompasses all levels of government and society, Ottawa released a parallel plan outlining 68 federal actions spread out across 22 departments and agencies. Nine of those will be backed with new funding and all are aimed at addressing “both immediate and future climate risks in Canada.” 

There was one glaring omission, said Eyquem: the establishment of a climate adaptation home rating system, which would help people retrofit their homes to insulate them, make them more air tight and help glaze windows to keep extreme heat out. 

“We don’t see that in the strategy,” she said.

Overall, however, she said the detail in the plan left the coalition “very pleasantly surprised.”

“It raises the bar for other countries’ national adaptation strategies,” said Eyquem.

The new strategy comes after two years of engagement with provincial, territorial and municipal governments. A number of experts as well as representatives from First Nations, Inuit and Métis nations were also involved in the plan’s development. 

Other levels of government have 90 days to provide feedback on the strategy and how its goals should be achieved.