Canada: Climate Change Alters Municipal Role And Responsibilities

Last Updated: February 15 2019
Article by Paula Lombardi

"[By] covering a ground plot with buildings and pavements, which carry off most of the rain and prevent its soaking into the Earth and renewing and purifying the Springs ... the water of wells must gradually grow worse, and in time be unfit for use as I find has happened in all old cities.

Benjamin Franklin, 1789

There are numerous Canadian cites that fail to monitor real-time data of wastewater discharges into our local lakes and rivers. It is unclear as to the amount of wastewater that overflowing the city's treatment facilities when they are unable to accommodate a storm event.

Municipal governments have an obligation to annually report to Environment Canada the amount of untreated wastewater is spilled into watercourses. The data from 2017 indicates that approximately 214 billion litres of sewage were spilled or untreated prior to discharging into the natural environment. Approximately two-thirds of the amount of discharge reported in 2017 was intentionally released due to severe storm events and the inability of single pipe systems (combined storm sewer and waste water) to handle increased flows.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has estimated that it will cost cities $18 billion to implement new Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations ("Wastewater Regulations"). The Wastewater Regulations are established under the Fisheries Act and included mandatory effluent standards, reporting and toxicity testing. There are numerous standards set out in the Wastewater Regulations that do not come into effect until 2020 for high-risk systems and 2040 for low risk systems.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has estimated that it will cost cities $18 billion to implement new Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations ("Wastewater Regulations"). The Wastewater Regulations are established under the Fisheries Act and included mandatory effluent standards, reporting and toxicity testing. There are numerous standards that do not come into effect until 2020 for high-risk systems and 2040 for low risk systems.

The effects of climate change have also resulted in significant negative impacts on municipal transportation systems, water supply and sewage systems and caused biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and the introduction of invasive species. Municipalities have the necessary tools to implement a policy framework and can require certain measures be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)1 or to upgrade existing treatment systems.

Impacts of recent extreme weather events highlight the vulnerability of communities and critical infrastructure to adapt to the effects of climate change. The costs resulting from extreme weather events in Canada over the past 15 years have been greater than for all previous years combined. Hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars in property damage and disruptions in the production and flow of goods and services have been associated with flooding, wind, hail and ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and wild fires. Increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, as is projected to occur with continued climate change, will affect the cost and availability of insurance and impact governments where they serve as the insurers of last resort.

Municipal governments around the world are tasked with and committed to the reduction of GHGs through the effective management of risks, protection of community safety and promoting economic sustainability. Municipalities can utilize its regulatory powers through land use planning, community energy planning, zoning, by-laws or regulatory permits to effectively deal with the effects of climate change.

In Canada approximately 300 cities are members of the Partners for Climate Protection program2. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that city governments directly or indirectly control more than 44 percent of our GHG emissions3. The three sectors that contribute to the majority of urban GHG emissions include: energy use in buildings, transportation, and waste management4.

More frequently municipalities of every size and located on every continent are taking steps towards ensuring a sustainable future and the reduction of GHGs. Numerous municipalities have implemented and promoted renewable energy sources. Municipalities are installing solar panels on public buildings and partnering with private developers to provide clean energy5.

There are numerous municipalities that are adapting to climate change through the implementation of plans to reduce the impacts of changing weather patterns, the City of Thunder Bay is developing a Climate Adaption Strategy. The City of Peterborough is developing a Climate Change Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the use of fossil fuels, and lower energy consumption to help the Greater Peterborough Area adapt to climate change.

Effective public transit systems can significantly reduce reliance on automobile use in local communities. In 2011, the City of Ottawa invested in 75 double-decker buses to transport double the number of passengers creating greater efficiencies and saving on ridership costs. In March 2014 the City of Vaughan developed the Vaughan Community Climate Action Plan to provide practical ways to reduce GHG emissions6. The City of Vaughan's Transportation Demand Management (TDM) initiatives are set out in the City's Transportation Master Plan and encourages the reduction of automobile dependence.

Increases in the number of extreme weather events in Ontario have placed a strain on municipal infrastructure. The impacts of recent flooding events can be reduced through the development of stormwater management plans to control the rate of runoff from rain and melted snow7. The Cities of Kitchener8 and Waterloo9 have developed a stormwater credit and rebate policy to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff through the implementation of a user fee program. The City of Kitchener developed the stormwater credit policy to motivate and reward residents and businesses for reducing the amount of runoff that flows into the City's drainage systems through increased pervious surfaces. The City of Mississauga10 implemented its stormwater credit program to provide a stormwater change reduction to multi-residential and non-residential properties whose stormwater practices or measures provide a direct benefit to the City's stormwater management program.

More and more municipalities are investing in renewable energy projects such as solar panels and streetlight replacement programs where inefficient streetlights are being replaced with high-efficiency LEDs to reduce energy consumption and in some instances raise revenue. In 2013 the City of Brockville11 installed solar panels on its arena along with a number of energy efficient retrofits to reduce operating costs and the City's carbon footprint. Built around 1,066 rooftop solar panels, this represents one of Canada's largest municipal solar energy projects. Sudbury's Housing Corporation in 2008 installed a custom designed SolarWall® system12. The system draws heated air off the top of the SolarWall® panels that is used in the building's ventilation system. The SolarWall® also displaces approximately 2,162 Gigajoules (GJ) of energy and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 186 tonnes annually.13

The development of efficient municipal buildings can incorporate many environmentally friendly features to increase energy savings. The City of London's Stoney Creek Community Centre is a LEED Gold certified 84,000+ square foot building that includes a community centre, YMCA and library. The Stoney Creek Community Centre implemented: high-efficiency HVAC and lighting systems in addition to optimized building and service designs, resulting in 440 tonnes less GHG emissions annually; green roof, rainwater capture and storage, and low-flow fixtures resulting in 40% less water consumption; utilizing 20 per cent local materials; and, generating 75 per cent less construction waste that was sent to a landfill14. We previously wrote about the construction of Net Zero Buildings, specifically the fire hall located in Municipality of Middlesex Centre.

In April 2014, the Town of Halton Hills approved a new set of Green Development Standards15 to encourage more sustainable, high-performance and efficient development to contribute to economic prosperity, a cleaner environment as well as social and cultural wellbeing16. The City of Mississauga17, City of Toronto18 and Town of East Gwillimbury19 have engaged in similar green development standards and strategy initiatives.

The actions taken today by municipalities to enhance community resilience to climate change will greatly influence their ability to meet future sustainability goals, as well as to pay for the human and economic costs of climate-related impacts. The case studies in this report provide several examples of relatively low-cost actions, particularly through planning processes that are being taken by municipalities today that are designed to reduce costs of future impacts.



2 As members of the Partners for Climate Protection program, cities commit to reducing GHG emissions and are supported in their efforts "through a five-milestone process that guides members in creating GHG inventories, setting realistic and achievable GHG reduction targets, developing local action plans, and implementing plans using specific, measurable actions to reduce emissions." See

3 IMFG Perspectives No. 16/2017, Reducing Urban Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Effective Steering Strategies for City Governments, Sam Hughes, page 1,

4 Ibid, page 1.

5 Aspen is third U.S. city to reach 100% renewable energy,


7 Stormwater Management in Ontario: Legal Issues in a Changing Climate, A Report for the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, Laura L. Zizzo, Travis Allan, Alexandra Kocherga, April 2014








15 Town of Halton Hills Green Development Standards Study, Final Report, March 2014,

16 Ibid, page I, The benefits from the implementation of the green development standards include: energy consumption; water conservation; improved community design; more active transportation; efficient infrastructure use; stormwater management; reduced long-term home/building/business operating costs; implementation flexibility; marketing advantage; efficient resource/material use; reduced utility costs; lower greenhouse gas emissions; and a healthier standard.




The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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