Canada Needs a National Policy on Green Infrastructure

Despite its ubiquity in certain circles, you could be forgiven for not knowing what Green Infrastructure is. Unless you are one of those rarefied beasts that has a burning passion for environmental and/or municipal infrastructure and urban design policy. You may not have given more than a passing thought about the form and function of your urban green spaces, how urban water flows, or how big your watershed is. That is, unless you live in Windsor, Ottawa/Gatineau, Michigan or Houston, or one of the many communities across North America who have been hard-hit by the near endless rain that has marked the summer of 2017. If you live in one of these towns, you may be asking these very questions. You are certainly aware that a city’s infrastructure is tasked with managing water, and well, it seems many places aren’t managing very well. This is where Green Infrastructure comes in.

Traditional (grey) infrastructure design takes all the water that falls as precipitation, and puts it in a pipe under the road where it gets channeled off somewhere, likely to be discharged into a local watercourse. Many older cities have combined sewer / stormwater systems, and large rainfalls can overwhelm the system. The result is raw sewage discharged into our lakes and rivers. Green Infrastructure design is a type of urban renewal being adopted globally that seeks to improve urban quality of life and build climate resilience by leveraging, mimicking and strengthening natural systems to complement or improve on traditional (grey) systems. The focus of Green Infrastructure policy is on water management, flood mitigation, environmental adaptation, biodiversity protection and enhancement through which a myriad of social benefits are provided, such as improved air and water quality and a greener, more vibrant and livable urban environment. As we have seen this past season, how water is managed is arguably one of the most important urban infrastructure functions.

Street Side Bioswale

Street Side Bioswale
Image used under Creative Commons License Labeled for reuse – Wikimedia

Good Green Infrastructure policy focuses on using innovative approaches to integrate natural and artificial systems to create spaces that are dynamic, beautiful, functional and resilient. Cities around the world have already embraced good Green Infrastructure policy, the most common of which may consist of urban forests and woodlots, Bioswales, engineered and natural wetlands, ravines, waterways and riparian zones, fields, meadows, parks, green roofs, urban gardens, or simply planting more trees[1]. Green Infrastructure elements make neighborhoods beautiful places to live while providing a bulwark against the damaging effects of climate change. Moreover, according to a 2013 Nature Conservancy study, Green Infrastructure projects, compared to traditional grey infrastructure typically have reduced environmental footprints, lower startup, operating and maintenance costs, and have no end-of-life recapitalization costs due to their self-sustaining and regenerative nature. [1] Green Infrastructure projects in lifecycle analysis have demonstrated significantly lower carbon footprints, and are much more efficient at reducing toxic loading of grey water at point of discharge compared to traditional projects. [2]

Urban Rain Garden & Water Feature
Image used under Creative Commons License Labeled for reuse – Wikimedia

Most of Canada’s infrastructure is at least 30 to 50 years old and is in disrepair. The biggest impacts of climate change in Canada will not be killer heat waves, as much as it will be increased 100, 500 and 1000-year storms, and the effects of water. The Insurance Bureau of Canada has indicated that property and casualty insurance payouts from extreme weather have more than doubled every 5 to 10 years since the 1980s, and the primary cause of claims  during the seven-year period up to 2016 was flooding. Furthermore, with over 70% of Southern Ontario’s pre-settlement wetlands lost through agricultural drainage, development, encroachment, land clearance, filling and road construction, [4] we have undermined our very ability to absorb the worst that Mother Nature would throw at us.

If Green Infrastructure is such a great solution, why aren’t we doing it already? After years of missed opportunity we find ourselves far behind the curve, and Canada’s leadership simply lacks the political will to prioritize climate resilience policies. The United Nations, European Union, The UK, and the US EPA all have strong policies, guides, guidelines and targets for implementation of Green Infrastructure, however Canada has no such policies in place. The other side of climate change mitigation is adaptation. We must be ready to face a changing climate in Canada, and according to A new report by Prof. Feltmate at University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, we are not ready.

While the Federal government in Canada has committed to investing $20 Billion over the next decade to investment in Green Infrastructure, they have essentially abandoned all strategy, policy coordination, guidance or even a basic definition of what in fact qualifies as Green Infrastructure to the provinces and municipalities who are struggling to fill the gap. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has no stand-alone Green Infrastructure policy. The province defines, or discusses Green Infrastructure in significant detail, but these discussions are largely buried within multiple policy papers and diffused among several agencies. Ontario’s Green Infrastructure policy is piecemealed between the Ministry of Municipal Housing and Affairs, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, and lacks any coherent framework, let alone tangible targets. This is reflected in the City of Ottawa’s Green Infrastructure policy which, despite having received some genuine engagement and even a pilot project or two, Canada’s capital city is approaching Green Infrastructure as an unproven technology and their policy is just as vague and disjointed as the province’s.

Canada has always been an innovation leader. It is time for us to step up and demonstrate climate leadership. Feltmate’s report stresses that Canada must develop “authoritative, accessible and actionable information” on changing climate conditions, and  “generate greater awareness, leadership and investment in adaptation”. He urges Ottawa and the provinces to each create a position of “chief adaptation officer,” whose mandate would be to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in flood preparedness and produce regular audits of the jurisdiction’s commitments and actions. [5] This is exactly what is required for Canada lead by example in climate preparedness.

While other global jurisdictions are getting on with things and building the great cities of tomorrow, excellent places to invest and live, Canada is lurching along hesitantly, stymied by the Harper-era shift away from climate adaptation-related public policy [6] just when we needed it most, and politicians who are reticent to take on any new ideas when “staying the course” just seems safer. It isn’t. We are headed into uncharted waters and we need all the tools we can muster. Lack of leadership and coordination creates confusion and paralysis when we need decisive action. I urge Canada’s leaders to adopt Professor Feltmate’s recommendations, and show leadership by developing a National Policy on Green Infrastructure.

___________________

Sources:

[1] Online Source: http://greeninfrastructureontario.org/

[2] The Nature Conservancy (2013) Online Source: https://www.nature.org/about-us/the-case-for-green-infrastructure.pdf?redirect=https-301

[3] Brudler, S., & et al. (2016). Life cycle assessment of stormwater management in the context of climate change adaptation. Water Research 106, 394-404.

[4] When the Big Storms Hit: The Role of Wetlands to Limit Urban and Rural Flood Damage. Prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. – Intact Center for Climate Change Adaptation (Moudrak & et al., 2017)

[5] IBID

[6] Bolivar Phillips. (2013). Adaptive Approaches in Stormwater Management. Ottawa: City of Ottawa. Retrieved from http://documents.ottawa.ca/en/node/6048

Open Letter to MP David McGuinty & Justin Trudeau on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline Approval

Dear Hon. David McGuinty,

I was quite dismayed at the government’s announcement yesterday to approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline. I am one of those “radicals” that believe there should be no new pipelines – ever. While I care about water, bears and orca whales, my reason is climate. I am an environmental scholar; while I do not study climate directly, I have a good understanding of the systems, and the math. And math is the reason I say we CANNOT afford new pipelines. As stated in this article written by the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute, here is the math:

942 > 800

The proven oil reserves currently in operation globally represent 942 gigatons of CO2. If we want to keep warming below 2°C, WE CAN ONLY BURN 800 GIGATONS.

There are currently 22 Gigatons of accessible CO2 in the tar sands, with another estimated 218 gigatons present. The tar sands alone represent the potential to blow almost ¼ of the PLANET’s CO2 “bank account”. Now is NOT the time to build new infrastructure, it is the time to plan a transition.

Currently there are a couple of false narratives that are being perpetuated by Rachel Notley, as well as PM Justin Trudeau.

The first false narrative is that the pipelines in question constitutes an existential choice between environment and economy. There are other paths available. The renewable sector has created over 2.5 million jobs in the USA, and employment in that sector has surpassed oil, gas & coal combined. While China and the USA build their industry, Canada lags far behind. There is NO reason we could not have been a leader in this area if Harper had decided in 2008 to invest in the renewable industry over subsidies to oil & gas, and pouring concrete. With the Trump presidency aiming to kill the US renewable industry, NOW is the time to open Canada’s doors to the US renewables brain trust, and invest in renewables as an industry of the future. Moreover, Canadian oil patch workers are ASKING to be retrained in renewables!

The second false narrative is that with offsets and regulation, there will be NO ADDED CO2 output from the tar sands as a result of building new pipelines. This is utterly, laughably false.

  1. This is a matter of emission scoping. In the carbon footprint industry, we calculate a carbon footprint by making determinations regarding now far downstream it logically makes sense to capture data. This may make sense empirically, but the climate does not care who, in the end burns that fuel. WE pulled it out of the ground, and it WILL be burned. And that is not even considering all the ancillary emissions. What the federal government views as “in scope” only accounts for 9.5% of emissions.
  2. Carbon OFFSETS (such as tree planting and other schemes) and CREDIT schemes have been widely found to be at best unreliable. Moreover, human nature demonstrates virtually every time that when you save a dollar in one place, you simply spend it elsewhere. Same goes for GHG’ Also, Notley said today that building a pipeline does not mean they will increase capacity. Seriously!? There is currently NO economic need for it, and who in their right minds would invest billions in infrastructure you are planning to mothball!?

As stated, I am an environmental studies major at Carleton, and I have studied climate change in depth. There is NO DOUBT about the science. As an environmental scholar, what I see happening now in the arctic is extremely alarming. It is blowing away most of the climatology modeling that has been done, and climatologists don’t even know what the consequences may be – but the will NOT be good.

The Insurance industry has indicated that from 2009 to 2014, insured losses in Canada caused by large natural catastrophes hovered around or surpassed the $1 billion mark. The signature of climate change features prominently on this. In fact, by the government’s own reckoning, over the past six fiscal years, the federal government spent more on recovering from large-scale natural disasters than in the previous 39 fiscal years combined. The same report states that the future cost of climate change for Canada could grow from approximately $5 billion per year in 2020 to between $21 billion and $43 billion per year by the 2050s.

Canada has COMMITTED to reducing GHG’s per our COP21 commitments, and by approving these pipelines, there is NO WAY we can meet these commitments. Just as we must commit to take care of our own homeless and needy, manage our own environment and economy responsibly, we MUST take our climate responsibilities seriously. When you knocked on my door you told me you are a family man, and that you care about our environment. I don’t see how you can reconcile these, and support the government’s position on pipelines. I kindly request you bring my concerns forward, and you DO NOT support expansion of hydrocarbon infrastructure.

Regards,

Adam Caldwell

Ottawa, Ontario