How Nova Scotia coastal communities are planning for climate change

·5 min read

Strolling along the historic, church-lined waterfront of Mahone Bay, N.S., Mayor David Devenne envisions a shoreline protected one day by a berm, marshes and sandy flats.

The reimagined shoreline is part of the response created eight years ago when Nova Scotia's former NDP government asked municipalities to prepare climate change action plans in order to access $55.9 million a year in federal gas tax money.

Devenne's small South Shore town scored the highest in a recent study reviewing the progress of those climate plans.

"It'll break the waves down before they get to this level and then the berm piece deals with the high tide," Devenne said his community's plan.

"What you'll see as you look along here will be what looks like a beach. There'll be pools and ponds and grasses growing all to deaden the impact or reduce the impact of the wave action."

75% of municipalities followed through to some degree

The study, done by environmental planner David Righter, tracked the status of plans submitted by 35 coastal municipalities as of 2020.

It included a detailed look at a representative sample of 20 municipalities with a total of 331 priority actions.

"My research found that out of the priorities that were identified in these plans, nearly 75 per cent have been implemented, meaning they've either been started or completed since 2013," said Righter, whose research was included in his recently released University of British Columbia masters thesis.

"That's a really high number — 75 per cent — and indicative of the success of this initiative by the province."

Righter said Mahone Bay, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and the Municipality of the District of Digby came out on top in his research of the Municipal Climate Change Action Plan program.

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CBC

The study found the action most likely to be underway was adapting land-use regulations.

The action most likely to be completed was emergency preparedness to address hazards like flooding, including establishing evacuation routes, securing back-up power and developing communications and alerts.

Municipalities with low political turnover at the top tended to follow through on their plans.

"Many of the actions that these municipalities have taken are what we call groundwork actions, which are steps to prepare for action, but may not constitute actual changes to systems or the built environment in the municipalities," Righter said in an interview from Portland, Maine, where he is now based.

Shoreline plan sitting on a shelf

In Mahone Bay, the shoreline technical study is the direct result of the risks identified during climate planning ordered by the province.

But the solution has been sitting on a shelf for five years while the town seeks provincial and federal cost-sharing.

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CBC

"It's a $4-million price tag," said Devenne. "That was back in 2016 when [the study] was completed. So it's going to be considerably more than that today."

While the town waits for other levels of government to chip in for its big mitigation project, it is taking steps to lower its carbon footprint.

It is proceeding with a large solar project to provide green energy through its own electric utility and it is assisting residents with heat pumps. This spring, the community plans to install eight vehicle-charging stations.

Consensus emerged on flood risk

Gordon Smith, provincial director of planning with the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs, said the Municipal Climate Change Action Plan program educated municipalities about climate change and revealed a consensus over the risk posed by flooding.

"We thought there would be regional differences, different parts of the province would have slightly different views of what climate change impacts they are facing, and actually there was huge alignment across the whole province," he said.

He said that has spurred work on a provincewide flood-risk map and is driving regulations that will put teeth in the Coastal Protection Act passed in 2019.

"The success of this is really to have evidence saying this is what municipalities are concerned about," said Smith. "How do we, as the province, work towards supporting them with the things that they're facing?"

Halifax develops own adaptation program

Righter acknowledged his study only examined adaptation planning under the program, which under-represents the amount of work completed or underway.

For example, the review of the 2013 plan submitted by Halifax included only three priority actions — all were implemented.

Righter noted Halifax had previously developed its own adaptation program with its own priorities called Climate Smart.

The city has since adopted a far more ambitious carbon-slashing and climate adaptation plan called HalifAct. It has a goal of getting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

HalifAct calls for municipal operations to be net zero by 2030 and overall emissions to be cut by 75 per cent by the end of the decade. Retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency, more solar panels and electric vehicles are some of the dozens of actions in the plan.

'Mainstreaming climate change'

Rising sea levels were factored into a multimillion-dollar seawall recently built on the Northwest Arm. As well, new climate change scenarios are being incorporated into activities around floodplains.

CBC
CBC

"Our planning team is working on updating all of the planning rules and regulations and zonings for that work so that we are protecting people along those watersheds and with every specific project," said Shannon Miedema, the city's energy and environment program manager.

"The idea is to really be mainstreaming climate change."

Back in Mahone Bay, Devenne said the 2013 coastal planning exercise forced people in the town to face climate change at a time when many were unaware of its potential impact or skeptical of its validity.

"I think the issue that's really come home to us in the last four or five years is just how powerful nature is and how changeable it is. How we were able to live here for the last 250 years is no longer an option," he said.

"We have to change the way that we embrace our surroundings because it's changing. And if we don't change, it'll change us itself."

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