After a year in which major storms, wildfires and flooding hit the Halifax area, many residents are wondering how the city is adapting to a world of extreme weather.
As director of environment and climate change for the Halifax Regional Municipality, Shannon Miedema has been hearing “growing anxiety” since post-tropical storm Fiona last fall, the Upper Tantallon wildfire in May and the historic July rains that caused Dramatic flooding in Halifax and elsewhere in the province.
“For example, what’s really happening in Nova Scotia? It’s really raising the level of awareness and acceptance that climate change is here now and it’s real,” Miedema said.
Halifax is now three years into its climate change plan, Hali DONE, which the city calls “one of Canada’s most ambitious climate action movements” and aims to have a net-zero economy by 2050. It is funded by a climate action tax on residents’ property tax bills, which amounted to about $20 million in this year’s budget.
Miedema and his team of about 30 people are working on the 46 actions of the plan, which include the installation of electric vehicle chargers, the electrification of the bus fleet, the integration of climate change in municipal decision-making, the planting of trees and coastal risk assessment.
A next project on shore road at Eastern Passage aims to create a long-term solution for a stretch of coastal highway that regularly washes away, as happened most recently during post-tropical Storm Lee.
A new slope of natural vegetation and cobblestones will be created on the coast, with a breakwater, a new elevated and tree-lined path. The city will contribute $2 million, of which $3 million will come from federal funds.
“This type of fund gives us the opportunity to try something new,” Miedema said, adding that community consultations will begin soon.
Halifax hopes to start the project in 2024.
Miedema said he would like to see the city do more of this “build back, better” and use its HaliFACT money to replace old bridges with ones that can withstand large amounts of rushing water, for example.
The climate team is talking to public works staff about these changes, which could include permeable pavement in parking lots that often flood, but Miedema said no projects have moved forward yet.
The staff is also reimagining the Solar City Programsaid Miedema, who is now offering Halifax homeowners financing for solar energy, in a broader plan for all buildings in the municipality, including private homes.
The program, which Miedema hopes will launch “soon,” would provide a full set of options for those who want to make changes to their property, whether it’s solar panels or preparing for the next hurricane, flood or extreme heat event.
Buildings responsible for most of Halifax’s emissions
The retrofits are key because HaliFACT found that 70 per cent of Halifax’s total greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the fuel and electricity consumption of residential, commercial and industrial buildings.
That’s why it’s also vital that the province move more quickly with renewable energy projects because the grid “must be greener,” Miedema said.
Miedema said his team just finished more than a year of work with a consulting firm on climate risks for the city’s critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, telecommunications, railways and the port. The report will help guide investments to protect those assets and will eventually be presented to regional council.
“It’s very detailed, it’s very scientific. We’re very excited,” Miedema said. “We are obtaining detailed mapping of flood hazards for the entire borough… i.e. rainfall flooding and coastal flooding.”
This project pairs well with an update on risks and vulnerabilities from the city’s emergency management team that helps with emergency planning, including evacuation routes, for all types of disasters in the municipality, Miedema said.
Public consultations on the assessment are taking place in several communities until early November, and there are Also an online survey.
The climate change team also intervened in the draft regional plan, which is in full public consultation. The plan sets out regional-level policies that outline where, when and how future growth and development should take place.
The plan says Halifax’s intention is to “discourage wetland development” and provide incentives for their protection, as well as increase buffer zones around rivers, streams and lakes from 20 to 30 metres.
Eric Rapaport, associate professor of planning at Dalhousie University, said he’s happy to see that buffer zone expanded, but Halifax should do the same with the coast. The draft regional plan says no major buildings should be allowed lower than 3.2 meters above mean sea level, but Rapaport said it should be at least five metres.
Halifax could also take a “much more aggressive stance” on flood prevention following the sponge city concept, Rapaport said. That method suggests using green areas like gardens or roofs to absorb slowly released rainwater, which in Halifax could include boulevards like University Avenue, or both Halifax and Dartmouth Commons.
Rapaport said projects like rain parks are easy and relatively cheap to complete and are gaining popularity in Europe and the United States.
“So there’s a lot more we could do.”
It’s also important to accelerate current projects that could get people out of their cars and have a major impact on carbon emissions, Rapaport said, such as a ferry between Bedford and Halifax, and a Network of protected bike lanes. He also said making Halifax Transit free would benefit everyone, as roads would be less congested for people who have to drive.
Ultimately, councilors are the ones who set priorities for the city, and Rapaport said it’s a “difficult” task to find money for ambitious climate projects alongside pressures like the homelessness crisis.
“You have to think about making sure everyone has shelter and food first,” Rapaport said. “So we should look very closely at ‘what is going to give us the most bang for our buck in terms of decarbonization.'”
Overall, Rapaport said Halifax is being proactive and commends the city for its various projects, including the possible creation of a district energy system for the new Cogswell area with heat from the neighboring wastewater treatment plant.
A climate change survey distributed through Halifax libraries showed that most respondents felt fear and a sense of powerlessness, Miedema said. She believes one way to combat this is to show what the city is working on and encourage people to take their own actions.
“We are not out of time yet and we still have hope,” Miedema said.