Building better dykes to prevent flooding, constructing fire breaks to slow wildfires, and creating more cooling centres for people — these projects could be among those to soon benefit from over half a billion dollars in funding provided by the federal government this week to help Canadian communities adapt to climate change.

And while experts agree the funds will make a difference, some say much more is still needed to help protect communities in Canada that are experiencing increasingly severe and frequent wildfires, floods and storms connected to climate change caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels.

Announced in Ottawa, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said by 2031, the money will have funded over 1,400 projects in municipalities across the country. The funds come from the National Adaptation Strategy, which has earmarked a total of $1.6 billion over five years. The funding — which applies to all levels of municipal government, Indigenous communities and municipal partners such as not-for-profits — was announced along with the full strategy in 2023, and now the program is open and accepting applications.

While the funds are significant, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has estimated about $10 billion will be needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change at the municipal level.

In a 2019 report, the FCM and the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) found that municipalities will not be able to fund the climate adaptation and resilience projects needed at the civic level. Federation president Scott Pearce notes that municipalities are owners and operators of 60 per cent of the country’s public infrastructure, but minimal tax dollars are returned to them.

This week’s announcement now opens up applications for municipalities to conduct feasibility studies on their climate risk (essential to planning what projects are needed to protect communities), along with up to $1 million to complete projects. While a large city might have staff to assess the vulnerability of a municipality to climate change, a small or medium municipality does not, explained Jason Clark, IBC’s national director of climate change advocacy.

It means the funding stream will make a big difference for rural communities and smaller towns, he explained. But at the same time, demand will likely surpass the need, as exemplified by the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF), which closed after running out of funds. In 2022, CBC reported that the fund, which was announced at $2 billion over ten years and then topped up with another $1.3 billion to last 12, was already half spent.

On Tuesday, the mayors of Merritt, Princeton and Abbotsford announced their requests to the disaster fund were rejected following devastating floods in 2021. Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens said they feel “abandoned” by the federal government. The communities were seeking to build more permanent dykes to prevent future flooding.

“There's a very significant infrastructure need across this country for those sorts of funds,” stressed Clark, who explained that the $10 billion the FCM is requesting includes $2 billion in surge funding for the exhausted Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.

Building better dykes to prevent flooding, constructing fire breaks to slow wildfires, and creating more cooling centres for people — these projects could be among those to soon benefit from over half a billion dollars in new funding.

Where the funds can go

The money announced this week will be administered through the Green Municipal Fund, a program of FCM. They list examples of eligible projects (with a cap of $1 million), which include: heating and cooling centres; relocating municipal infrastructure; wetland restoration and construction and wildfire mitigation activities.

The fund has already supported dozens of projects, from a study in Mayo, Yukon on the feasibility of geothermal heat for the community, to an electric public transportation project in Ville de Gaspé, Quebec. While funding criteria has changed, Ryan Ness of the Canadian Climate Institute explains that projects such as these capture what is possible with the federal government’s announcement.

“So, these will mostly be modest-sized projects...[they] will probably help at either the small community or the neighborhood level,” he said.

“When it comes to helping the city of Richmond, for example, upgrade its dyking system to withstand sea level rise and new levels of storm surge…it's going to be nowhere near close.”

In Richmond, British Columbia, a $300 million project to upgrade the city’s dyke system is currently underway. Other communities in the province have also put forward hefty price tags for their dyke projects: Chilliwack has said it will need $185 million and Pitt Meadows says the cost will be about $121 million.

As of now, flooding is Canada’s costliest hazard, at an average annual residential cost of $2.9 billion per year, according to a 2022 report by Canada's Task Force on Flood Insurance and Relocation. Clark noted that the National Flood Insurance Plan is part of the funding puzzle, and will help reduce the need for disaster aid.

While this week’s funding for municipalities will not be able to support all needed projects of all sizes, Ness notes the program will help municipalities study how they can finance larger adaptation work, such as major infrastructure projects.

“The reality is that the federal government is never going to be able to find all the money alone to support the billions and billions of investment that are going to be required at the local level to prepare for climate change, so that program looks at ways in which cities might be able to create new sources of revenue and to bring private financing, like from banks or pension funds,” he explained.

During the announcement, Guilbeault said municipalities know best what their communities need; the funds could lead to the creation of green spaces, making buildings more resilient to hurricanes or wildfire mitigation, he noted. He also acknowledged that “half a billion is not $10 billion, but it’s not nothing,” and the funds are a strong commitment from the federal government.

In an emailed statement, his department noted that the federal government has invested over $6.5 billion into adaptation, including $2 billion since November 2022 to implement the National Adaptation Strategy.

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