New transit, water systems to undergo green test in federal funding review

OTTAWA — The Trudeau Liberals have laid out the environmental test that new transit and water systems will have to go through in the hope cities and provinces choose greener construction options.

Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi has long talked about applying a green lens to the projects the government will fund under a 10-year, $81.2 billion spending plan, but exactly how it would work had been unclear.

In a document made public Friday, the government asks cities and provinces to measure the increases or decreases in pollution from a project starting with construction through to the end of its anticipated lifespan.

The test will also assess any downstream or upstream effects, such as reduced electricity consumption, and feed into federal calculations about how close the country is to meeting its climate change targets.

A price will also be put on each tonne of greenhouse gas emissions reduced as part of work so the federal government can figure out how efficient it is with its spending.

Not all federally funded projects under the $33 billion in spending over the next decade overseen directly by Sohi will be scrutinized through the climate lens.

Nor will money for projects be tied to the results of the climate test, even if they show a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions because there are other considerations the Liberals will take into funding decisions, Sohi said.

Construction of a bridge, for instance, may cause greenhouse gas emissions, but the bridge itself could help more easily move goods through a major trade corridor.

What the Liberals hope is the requirement to report on environmental impacts will act as an incentive for cities and provinces to think green when building and make it a regular part of planning for all manners of projects, including those that don’t receive federal funding.

“It saves money in the long run, because if you’re building infrastructure today that is resilient to the impact of climate change then you end up saving money at the back end when you don’t have to do the repairs or the necessary upgrades to deal with climate change,” Sohi said in an interview Friday from Halifax.

Canada’s environment commissioner has repeatedly warned in recent years that the federal government has an unclear picture about whether infrastructure funding is having its intended environmental effects.

In a 2016 report, Julie Gelfand pointed to a lack of information after a decade of gas tax transfers to cities aimed at improving the environment and last year chided Sohi’s department for not having a full picture of the threats climate change poses to infrastructure across the country.

The Liberals hope the new rules will address the concerns raised by Gelfand.

For instance, most projects over $10 million will be tested to see if they could prevent, withstand or recover from extreme weather linked to climate change, be it extreme weather events like storms and floods, or longer-term changes like rising sea levels or more frequent and prolonged droughts.

The guidelines for the climate lens include earthquakes as one of the natural hazards that cities and provinces should consider when they design projects, an issue Sohi’s officials highlighted last year.

A February 2017 email written as part of discussions with Sohi’s office about disaster mitigation funding cited “some credible research” that extreme weather linked to climate change, such as hurricanes or torrential rains, “can potentially trigger earthquakes.”

“Seismic events are one of the top hazards in Canada in terms of potential impacts,” the email said, noting areas prone to earthquakes include parts of British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the email and related messages under the Access to Information Act.

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