This post is part one in a three part series written by Emma Power, MEJC and CAT organizer, about Climate Action Plans

Part 1: Mitigation, Adaptation and Implementation

What is a climate action plan and what makes a good one? Depends who you ask. 

In the past, a large corporation could make a public commitment to “net-zero by 2050” and be commended, with few questions asked. A city or town could declare a climate emergency on paper and be called a leader, but change nothing about their operations. An organization’s climate action plan could list a bunch of nice ideas, be printed and bound with a snazzy cover, but then find a comfy place on a shelf somewhere – no timelines to meet, no responsible parties identified, no funds assigned, no review period scheduled. Today, we demand more. 

A climate action plan is typically a document produced by an organization like a Provincial or Federal government, municipality, not-for-profit, institution, or company. They can go in a few different directions, usually one of these three paths: 

  • primarily climate change mitigation-focused (a plan for reducing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the organization’s operations or jurisdiction to reduce contribution to climate change)
  • primarily climate change adaptation-focused (a plan for increasing the resilience of their operations to climate change impacts that are underway and projected)
  • a combination of both mitigation and adaptation

The climate mitigation path typically starts with a GHG inventory. Completing a GHG inventory involves gathering data related to all the emissions-producing activities that an organization partakes in – using electricity or natural gas in buildings, burning gasoline or diesel in vehicles, etc. It can get much broader than that, but that’s perhaps a blog for another time. The point is that a baseline is needed to identify priority areas of action and measure progress. You can still take action without doing any math (we know that riding a bike is better than driving a car without much analysis), but for an organization that is accountable to others, it really helps to have numbers to back yourself up. 

In the adaptation realm, the baseline is a vulnerability assessment. Only by actively identifying and quantifying risks to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure can we plan to protect them and respond to disruptions. Data is involved here too – we must look at the most recent, local climate projections in order to have the best possible picture of what we can anticipate in the future. In many cases, a vulnerability might not be apparent at all without incorporating climate projections; given the pace of climate changes that we are already experiencing, what has happened in the past is no longer very relevant. Any long-term plan—whether it’s a financial plan, asset management plan, or development plan—is pretty much meaningless without considering climate change at this stage of the game.

Although they have different starting points, climate change mitigation and adaptation are very much intertwined. The more we act to reduce emissions, the less we will have to adapt to, and every action (whether initially intended to be a mitigation action or an adaptation action), will have impacts in both spheres. For example, protecting a forested area from development allows those trees to continue to store carbon (mitigation), prevents the use of fossil fuel-driven heavy equipment that would have been used to clear it (mitigation), protects downstream areas from flooding in the face of increasingly uncertain precipitation patterns (adaptation), and maintains shade which protects wildlife and people from increasingly common extreme heat events (adaptation). Building a floodway may protect a community from flooding to a certain degree (adaptation), but building that floodway will require heavy equipment (emissions), flooding of vegetation (emissions), and could have significant impacts on the river ecosystem or nearby communities.

In my mind, we cannot separate mitigation and adaptation. They are too interdependent. But many organizations, including the Government of Canada, develop mitigation and adaptation plans separately. This isn’t necessarily bad. There is so much to do across such a vast area of geography and variety of sectors, that we do have to break it down into manageable pieces somehow. But we must consistently make the connections to ensure that both paths lead to the same place – a zero carbon and resilient society. An electric bus is no good on a washed out bridge. A solar-powered housing complex can still be consumed by wildfire. No climate solution can be perfect, but we need to consider all available information all of the time to ensure that overall, we make a series of informed decisions that bring us as close to where we need to go as possible.

Identifying all the right things is great (mitigation and adaptation impacts, financial, social, and ecosystem implications), but when it comes down to it, the power of climate action plans can be summarized in a few simple words: timeline, funding, and responsibility. Without these details, it is not really a plan. It could still be a valuable guidance document or a promising strategy, but (if you ask me), it is not a plan until someone has committed time, money, and energy to getting it done.

As much as we wish it was a plan, Manitoba’s Climate Action Team has called the Road to Resilience a ‘pathway’ because we (the collective of organizations and individuals that have contributed to it) do not have the power to implement all of the proposed solutions. Target dates, budgets, and specific action items assigned to specific people must be determined by the parties that ultimately have the decision-making authority – our government, industry and business leaders. Without any direct control, why did we invest our time in this? Because we (which includes you) deserve to be heard. By collaboratively drafting a potential pathway to a zero emission and resilient Manitoba that considers as many perspectives as possible, we’ve done a good chunk of the work. All our leaders have to do now is listen and fill in those critical details for implementation. It’s on all of us to hold them accountable.

Click here to read Climate Action Plans: Part 2