Extreme heat and drought, heavy precipitation, and more frequent wildfires, are in store for Ontario, according to a first-ever climate risk assessment that reads like a five-alarm fire on the need for the province to get serious about climate adaptation.
Premier Doug Ford’s government waited eight months before releasing the Provincial Climate Change Impact Assessment (PCCIA) with no news release and no fanfare, on a Friday afternoon in late August. Three years in the making, the assessment by the Sudbury, Ontario-based Climate Risk Institute warns that climate impacts will be “particularly impactful” for certain regions of the province—and their range and intensity will increase as the decades pass.
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The impacts Ontario faces from climate change “are very apparent right now, they’re very, very stark and quite serious, and this is expected to continue into the future,” Institute president Al Douglas told CBC.
By the 2080s, if nothing more is done to curb climate pollution, the province will face 55 to 60 days of extreme heat of 30°C or more, compared to the current annual average of 16, the national broadcaster says.
So far, “Ontario’s mean annual temperature has increased by 1.3°C between 1948 and 2016, with mean annual precipitation increasing by 9.7% over the same period,” write the authors. And projections show these changes will continue, meaning the risks presented by climate change “will become even greater in the future.” The 553-page report analyzes climate risks and their consequences in five focus areas—food and agriculture, infrastructure, natural environment, people and communities, and business and economy—for six regions of Ontario: Far North, Northeast, Northwest, Eastern, Central, and Southwest.
The PCCIA concludes that the province has solid “adaptive capacity”, but hasn’t been putting it to use. “Ontario, in general, has high institutional, technical, human, and financial levels of capacity to support adaptation actions,” the report says. “However, this capacity has not yet been mobilized widely despite the imperative.”
The authors say bridging that gap may have more to do with the province’s inclination to adapt to climate impacts, rather than its ability to do so. “Incorporating climate change resilience into decision-making requires the right information, tools, resources, and most importantly, willingness,” they write. “As changes in Ontario’s climate are expected to continue at unprecedented rates, it is critical for governments and regulatory agencies to support and enhance adaptation by developing enabling policies and programs.”
High Risks to Ecosystems
Climate change, habitat fragmentation, unsustainable land use, and pollution are all common and compounding threats across Ontario, the report concludes. In the northernmost parts of the province, “climate threats combined with potential development represent risks that are not only extensive, but also irreversible.”
Noting that “climate change is already a threat to Ontario’s natural environment, and is expected to drive risks to species, habitats, and ecosystem services even higher in the future,” the PCCIA projects major climate risk by 2050 “for almost all natural systems and species.”
By the end of the century, one quarter of risks under this focus area are expected to be “very high,” write the authors. Aquatic and land-based ecosystems in Ontario’s central and three northern regions will be in greatest jeopardy, much of it driven by climate impacts on northern wetlands.
The province’s ability to adapt to the ecosystem risks of climate change will depend on informed, forward-thinking governance, the PCCIA says, beginning with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing—where now-former minister Steve Clark and his chief of staff both recently resigned under the weight of the Greenbelt land grab scandal. “With few exceptions, climate change adaptation of species, ecosystems, and ecosystem services requires public sector leadership,” the authors write.
More money will also be needed. The authors point to a total lack of provincial or cost-shared programs dedicated to ecosystem adaptation, although practitioners, municipalities, and Indigenous communities can compete for funding from federal programs such as the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund and the Natural Infrastructure Fund.
Crumbling Infrastructure Adds to Climate Risk
The poor condition of much of Ontario’s infrastructure is a major impediment to climate resilience, the PCCIA states, with 2020-21 data from the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) showing that 34.7% of provincial and 45.3% of municipal assets are not in a state of good repair. Clearing that infrastructure gap would cost $16.8 billion for the province and $52.1 billion for cities.
The report warns of cascading impacts as the province’s aging power grid adapts to a changing climate. “As high and extreme temperatures are experienced, there will be an increased use of water for cooling purposes as baseline temperature in cooling water (lakes, rivers) will increase,” it states. Power plants will either need more water, or more time to cool down, and “there may be an accelerated deterioration of equipment as it performs under higher heat conditions.”
Flooding is one of the most severe risks to infrastructure of all kinds, and that’s an area where the authors say better provincial governance could make a big difference. “Land development and land use legislation can accomplish large-scale change (geographically and sector-wide) to support flood risk management, which is one of the most significant risk factors for this category,” the report says.
Food Sector Faces Extreme Heat, Drought
Ontario’s agricultural sector provides more than 10% of the province’s jobs and 6.4% of its GDP—not to mention 100% of its domestically-produced food. The PCCIA finds farm productivity is threatened by high temperatures, drought, and severe storms. Based on a high-end emissions scenario developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, RCP 8.5, the PCCIA forecasts “high” to “very high risk” for “corn, corn, cereals, forages, soybeans, field crop commodities, and apples, grapes, and field vegetable communities” by 2100, if climate pollution is not brought under control.
“Current global emissions are trending more in line with the RCP 8.5 scenario than other scenarios,” the report authors write, explaining their rationale for using an emissions pathway that was once referred to as “business-as-usual,” but has since been declared unlikely based on countries’ latest emission reduction pledges.
The authors warn of the risk that a “short-term high-intensity precipitation event” would pose to Ontario’s critically important soybean crop—the province’s largest agricultural export—especially in spring, and at a level that leads to seedlings being immersed for more than 48 hours. “Flood-sensitive soybean types have been shown to experience up to a 77% decline in yield under this scenario, mainly caused by limited plant survival and seed emergence.”
Ontario’s fruit and vegetable sector also faces considerable risk, imperiling a significant employer of around 30,000 farm workers, and a vital economic pillar with more than C$4.2 billion in annual activity. The sector also plays an important role in food security, with Ontario already relying on fruit and vegetable imports worth around $7.3 billion every year.
The PCCIA similarly projects losses and animal suffering in livestock production, especially during periods of extreme heat.
The farm sector has technological expertise that can help boost its resilience, including precision machinery, genetic research, and strong practices in water and soil conservation, the authors say. But building on those advantages may call for significantly improved infrastructure, like greenhouses, water sourcing, and energy systems, which come with “time and cost implications.”
The sector is also grappling with limited financial support, a continuing labour shortage, and above all, urban development. “Competing land use priorities, particularly in the high-density regions of the province (e.g. Central and Southwest regions), present capacity constraints for the agriculture sector,” write the authors.
An ‘Uphill Battle’ for the Most Vulnerable
“The overall findings of the PCCIA suggest that some of the greatest climate risks across Ontario are for people and communities, both now and into the future,” states the PCCIA.
But while the report dives deep into the climate risks faced by the general population, it’s “critical to evaluate climate change impacts and risks against the backdrop of equity in society,” the authors stress. Vulnerable populations like Indigenous communities, seniors, the unhoused, and the disabled “face a larger uphill battle to adapt to climate risks” than do their more secure peers.
“The social determinants of health play a role in defining the way individuals and communities respond to climate-related impacts, and the ways their exposure and sensitivity to climate risks may be exacerbated based on their social, material, and health conditions,” the report says.
Indigenous peoples are at the greatest risk of all communities, due to pre-existing inequities and accelerated rates of climate change in the northern reaches of the province where most of the communities are located.
“Changing climate conditions present a range of direct and indirect health and well-being impacts on Indigenous populations, threatening their personal safety, water and food security, mental well-being, knowledge systems, ways of life, and cultural cohesion,” states the PCCIA.
Unhoused people also face greater vulnerability, and in Ontario, that population is growing. Citing a 2021 estimate by the FAO, the PCCIA says more than 179,000 households in Ontario were living in “deeply unaffordable” housing, at risk of becoming homeless, and thereby more exposed to “multiple climate hazards.”
To enable people and communities to build adaptive capacity, the PCCIA says greater equity “remains a critical concern for climate change adaptation planning, particularly with rapid urbanization.”
Resource availability is another obstacle. “Current wait times for subsidized housing in Ontario are as long as seven 10 years in larger municipalities,” and the situation is expected to get worse.
Low-Carbon Shift Serves Businesses
The PCCIA includes an exhaustive analysis of the climate impacts ahead for Ontario’s private sector, with most businesses facing heightened risk in the years and decades ahead.
Businesses that depend on natural resource systems like forestry, fishing, and tourism are the most vulnerable. But action in cities and communities can make a decisive difference.
“Local economies and businesses that subscribe to resilience as well as the transition to a low-carbon future will have increased growth, prosperity, and thrive in the context of climate change,” the report says.
Putting the Bad News On Hold
The provincial government published the PCCIA after an epic delay of more than half a year, and just as a civil society group was organizing a sign-on and preparing a media event to demand its release.
“Preparing for climate change is critically important due to its far-reaching impacts on the well-being of our communities,” wrote Ontario’s Environment Minister David Piccini, in his official message on the report’s release. But Jennifer Penney of Seniors for Climate Action Now (SCAN!) said people in many parts of the province have been pushing the province to act on that critical importance by releasing the PCCIA, along with an earlier climate advisory report that was due in 2021.
An open letter [pdf] that SCAN launched in late July garnered 1,200 signatures by late August, Penney told The Energy Mix in an email, and the organization was planning a media conference in September to formally deliver the letter to Ford and Piccini.
“While we have no way of knowing for sure, we believe that our open letter caught the attention of the Ford government,” Penney wrote. “We believe the prospect of more public humiliation after the massive beating they have taken over the Greenbelt scandal led them to release the first part of the PCCIA.”
Environment ministry spokespeople did not respond to queries about the timing of the release, or whether they were aware of the SCAN letter.
“Since receiving the report, we have been working across government to best incorporate the report’s findings as we continue to build Ontario,” Piccini spokesperson Daniel Strauss told CBC. “The report concludes that Ontario has a robust capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change and our government is taking action to further build climate resiliency across the province.”