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May 17, 2021

Assessing Rural Municipal Climate Change Planning in Ontario

Assessing Rural Municipal Climate Change Planning in Ontario
Photo by Laura Penwell from Pexels

A portion of this article is published in the Spring/Summer issue of OPPI’s Y Magazine.

Rural communities experience unique vulnerabilities to climate change. The effects of climate change, particularly in the form of extreme temperatures, severe droughts and flooding, and delayed seasonal changes, threaten the viability of rural communities. Municipalities can respond to the threat of climate change through a continuum of approaches, from developing standalone climate change plans, to mainstreaming climate change objectives in official planning documents.

This article presents a high-level analysis of climate change plans (and other plans where climate change is a central organizing theme) from 108 rural municipalities in Ontario. It also highlights the extent to which climate change objectives are mainstreamed in rural municipal official plans. This article is a shortened version of a more detailed study on rural municipal climate change planning. Two key themes are presented in this article: (1) rural municipal climate change planning in Ontario is in its infancy, and (2) the majority of climate change plans (and other related plans) focus on climate mitigation over climate adaptation.
Evaluation framework
This study focuses on rural municipalities in Ontario with a population between 10,000 and 50,000. Climate change plans were content analyzed using a plan quality evaluation framework consisting of 61 indicators based on eight plan quality characteristics. Plan quality is a measure of the absence or presence of key components within a plan. The eight plan quality characteristics included:

(1) fact base (the empirical foundation of a plan);
(2) goals (ambition statements about desired future conditions);
(3) policies (action-oriented mechanisms to guide decision making);
(4) implementation (a commitment to follow through on a plan);
(5) monitoring and evaluation (a systematic framework for assessing plan progress and outcomes);
(6) coordination (connections to other plans and strategies and other levels of government);
(7) participation (a focus on how the public and other stakeholders were engaged in plan making); and
(8) plan organization and presentation (communicative aspects of a plan).

These characteristics are commonly used to assess various plans including official plans, transportation plans, climate change plans and hazard mitigation plans. Researchers and practitioners also agree that these characteristics are important elements of plans (for more information refer to Guyadeen, 2018). This is the first study of its kind to use a plan quality evaluation framework to evaluate the contents and quality of rural municipal climate change plans (and other related plans) in Ontario.
Two graduate students independently content analyzed each climate change plan (and other related plans) to increase the reliability of the study results. The per cent agreement between the two graduate students ranged from 82 per cent to 97 per cent and Krippendorff’s alpha ranged from 0.37 to 0.90. These calculations suggest that the results from the content analysis are generally consistent between the two graduate students. A binary scale was used to assess the 61 indicators of plan quality where “0” was assigned if the indicator was absent and “1” meant that the indicator was present. A benefit of this approach is that it helps to quantify the contents of climate change plans, which allows for comparisons among plan quality characteristics and for conducting correlational analyses. It also allows for comparisons to other plan quality evaluation studies. The plan quality evaluation framework was not used to assess community official plans because this framework was not designed for official plans. A qualitative review of official plans was completed to determine the extent to which climate change is considered in plans. This review focused on identifying key official plan policy areas referencing climate change and the nature of these policies.

Rural municipal climate change planning in Ontario is in its infancy
Table 1.
table #1

Table 1 summarizes the results from the plan quality evaluation. The mean score ranged from 0 to 1 with a score closer to 1 indicating a stronger performing plan quality characteristic, while a score closer to 0 suggested a poorly performing characteristic. A higher standard deviation indicated greater variation among climate change plans (and other related plans). The results from the plan quality evaluation suggest that rural municipal climate change planning in Ontario is in its infancy. Many rural municipalities did not have a dedicated climate change plan but incorporated climate change in a variety of other plans such as environmental action plans, sustainability plans and energy plans. The results also suggest that many plans are under-developed in relation to their fact base, climate goals and policies, implementation mechanism, and monitoring and evaluation framework. These are areas that could be improved in future rural municipal climate change plans.
The coordination characteristic was the strongest element in plans with a score of 0.76 and standard deviation of 0.29. This includes a discussion of how external and internal departments and organizations can help to implement the plan. The fact base was among the lowest scoring characteristic with a mean value of 0.25 and standard deviation of 0.21. This suggests that many municipalities did not include a comprehensive fact base in their climate change plan, including framing climate change as a local issue, assessing the current and future local climate impacts, and providing vulnerability assessments. The fact base is important because it informs the empirical foundation of climate change plans and is used to help rationalize and prioritize plan goals and policies.
Most plans also scored poorly in terms of climate goals and policies with mean scores of 0.31 and 0.21, respectively. The standard deviation was 0.20 for both characteristics. The majority of climate change plan goals focused on climate mitigation (e.g., reducing GHG emissions) while a handful of plans included goals related to climate adaptation (e.g., hazard reduction). Many plans included climate policies related to energy efficiency and renewable energy, while a small number of plans included policies focusing on land use, transportation, energy, resource and water management, food and agriculture, hazard reduction, economic development, and financial tools to support climate change efforts. Climate change plans should have short- and long-term goals about how the community will mitigate and adapt to climate change. Plans should also include a range of policies that focus on sectors affecting, or affected by, climate change.

An emphasis on climate mitigation over adaptation

The study also revealed that rural municipalities tend to emphasize climate mitigation over climate adaptation. These are two complementary yet distinct approaches to climate change planning. Mitigation focuses on reducing emissions while adaptation focuses on actions to limit the negative impacts of climate change.
Figure 1.
Figure #1

As evidenced from Figure 1, the fact base — the empirical foundation of a plan — tended to emphasize climate mitigation efforts over climate adaptation. The majority of plans placed a strong focus on developing emissions inventories and providing a breakdown of emissions, while a handful of plans discussed vulnerability assessments related to specific geographic areas, industries and demographics susceptible to climate change impacts. Most climate change plans included goals related to mitigation, specifically around reducing government emissions and identifying short-term greenhouse gas emission (GHG) targets. The limited focus on adaptation is not surprising given the complex and future-oriented nature of climate adaptation and vulnerability which often results in a lack of urgency to address climate change impacts. The emphasis on climate mitigation is somewhat expected since municipalities are major contributors to GHG emissions and have direct control over their emissions from municipal operations (e.g., buildings and transportation fleet). These findings parallel other climate change studies that find a stronger focus on climate mitigation over climate adaptation at the local government level (see Guyadeen et al., 2019).
Figure 2.
Figure #2

Figure 2 presents an analysis of community official plan policy areas referencing climate change. Official plans are useful for mainstreaming climate change objectives into the local development planning and decision-making processes. Official plans also have accompanying zoning regulations and are endorsed by local municipal councils. Roughly half of rural municipalities (53 out of 108) referenced climate change in their community official plan. Key policy areas included promoting green building standards and guidelines, reducing GHG emissions, supporting land use arrangements that reduce emissions, promoting energy conservation and efficiency, and supporting multimodal transportation alternatives. The majority of official plan policy areas tended to support climate mitigation over climate adaptation. Rural municipalities may want to consider mainstreaming climate change objectives in official plans since they are established documents that are frequently consulted during decision making.
This study offers a baseline understanding of the contents and quality of rural municipal climate change plans in Ontario. The study highlights key strengths and deficiencies in rural municipal climate change plans (and other plans where climate change is a central organizing theme), including improving the fact base of plans, incorporating climate adaptation goals and policies, and further mainstreaming climate change objectives in community official plans. It is important to note that while there are opportunities to improve rural municipal climate change efforts, it is evident that rural communities in Ontario have taken steps to address climate change.

  • Guyadeen, D. (2018). Do practicing planners value plan quality? Insights from a survey of planning professionals in Ontario, Canada. Journal of the American Planning Association, 84(1), 21–32.
  • Guyadeen, D., Henstra, D., & Thistlethwaite, J. (2019). Evaluating the quality of municipal climate change plans in Canada. Climatic Change, 152, 121–143.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Dave Guyadeen, PhD, RPP

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