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What Will It Cost for the North to Adapt to a Changing Climate?

A warming world’s wrenching impacts on the North are by now well understood. However, the cost of adapting to these dramatic shifts remains unclear in the case of northern Canada.

Written by Maura Forrest Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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A new duplex in Old Crow is built with a space frame foundation to keep the house level despite thawing permafrost.Photo Courtesy Alison Perrin

Temperatures in the Arctic are warming twice as fast as the global average. Sea ice and permafrost are melting. Precipitation is increasing, while winter snow cover declines.

The impacts of climate change in the North are well-known by now. The Arctic is a sort of canary in a coal mine, frequently used by climate scientists urging people to take global warming seriously.

But the actual cost of those impacts in northern Canada, and the cost of adapting to them, is still unclear.

“I think we’re at the early stages of tackling economic impacts of climate change challenges,” said Al Douglas, director of the Ontario Centre for Climate Impacts and Adaptation Resources. “Maybe one could say that there just needs to be more interest in this.”

Douglas said it’s hard to make a business case for investing in adaptation – building roads and houses that can withstand melting permafrost, for instance – without first knowing how much it’ll cost to do nothing.

“We risk not investing in adaptation,” he said. “It’s now that adaptation is really needed.”

In 2011, Canada’s National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) published a report that estimated the cost of climate change across the country. It found that costs could rise from about $3.8 billion (CAN$5 billion) annually in 2020 to between $16 billion to $33 billion a year by the 2050s.

But the NRTEE was shut down in 2013 by the former Conservative government, and Douglas said little has been done since to follow up.

He believes those economic analyses are best done at the provincial or territorial level for greater accuracy, but that hasn’t been happening.

“I have not seen anything like that from the regions of Canada,” he said.

Still, there have been smaller-scale studies here and there, including in the North.

In 2015, the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College published a study that calculated the cost of maintaining a winter mine access road built over frozen lakes in the Northwest Territories.

The centre is now preparing another report on the costs and benefits of different types of housing foundations that protect buildings from being damaged by thawing permafrost. The research was based in remote communities in the Yukon and Nunavut.

“I think having cost analysis can show where it’s better to think long term and invest more money upfront,” said Alison Perrin, the project coordinator.

But she said broader studies would be useful, either at the territorial or pan-northern level.

“I know that there’s an interest in it, and it’s kind of bad that there hasn’t been more work across northern Canada,” she said. “And I think that’ll change.”

Perrin and Douglas both said estimating the cost of climate change is tricky, because it’s hard to predict the future.

“It’s really difficult to do this sort of analysis because climate change can go in different directions,” Douglas said.

But it’s not impossible.

A paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December 2016 found that climate-related damage to infrastructure in Alaska could cost up to $5.5 billion by the end of the century. Much of the damage would be caused by roads flooding and permafrost melting beneath buildings.

The researchers also found that proactive adaptation – installing culverts beneath roads to prevent flooding, for example – could reduce that cost by $2.6 billion.

“This type of work is important because we know that infrastructure damages from climate change are already occurring,” lead author April Melvin wrote in an email to Arctic Deeply. “So, having some idea of what it could cost can inform decisions and future planning.”

Melvin said a comparable study should be possible in northern Canada. She said the information needed includes climate projections and data about the distribution of permafrost and infrastructure across the country.

But, even in the U.S., this type of research is relatively new. Melvin said there’s only one other study she knows of that has estimated climate-related costs in Alaska.

Douglas said part of the issue is that the public has been focused on carbon pricing and other methods of cutting emissions.

But he said it’s not enough just to focus on polluting less. “What happens if we do our part and other countries don’t?” he asked.

He pointed out that even if the whole world stopped burning fossil fuels right now, we would still feel the impacts of climate change for decades to come.

Douglas believes that’s why it’s so important for Canada to think about adaptation today – not just about meeting emissions targets.

“It’s imperative,” he said. “It’s just imperative.”

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