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Toward a National Adaptation Strategy for Canada: Key insights from global peers

The purpose of this paper is to outline some key issues and considerations that should inform the development of Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy (NAS).
Multiple Authors
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The majority of Canadians believe climate change is a crisis that needs to be urgently addressed. While federal efforts have been underway for over a decade to identify and address the risks of climate change in Canada, a dedicated national adaptation strategy or plan has not yet been developed. This is about to change, however, with the federal government’s commitment, under its new climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, to developing Canada’s first-ever national adaptation strategy (NAS). Recognizing that Canada has some catching up to do, the federal government can learn from international good practice and design a process that will produce an ambitious and inclusive adaptation strategy, one that protects and prepares Canadians in a changing and increasingly uncertain climate.

This report reviews the global trends in adaptation planning, summarizes Canadian federal government’s adaptation efforts to date, and builds on both to lay out some key issues and considerations that should inform the development of Canada’s NAS. These issues are rooted in international experience and good practice, which were gleaned through document reviews and stakeholder consultations, and are highlighted throughout the document. The report aims to provide a starting point and direction for the process so that the federal government can quickly get started.

The key messages from the publication are provided below. Download the full publication from the right hand column for more details.

Methods and Tools

Insights for Canada’s NAS process were gain from an examination of 12 adaptation policy instruments from 11 countries that looked at how different countries are approaching efforts to mobilize adaptation action at the national level. The countries selected for review represent a mix of policy instruments (e.g., assessments, strategies, plans, and programs) and experience (e.g., recent vs. 10+ years). These countries are Australia, Fiji, France, Kiribati, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The policy instruments were assessed in terms of the degree to which they addressed social inclusion, the emphasis on scientific assessments of climate vulnerability and risks, the use of detailed frameworks for prioritizing risks and adaptation solutions, the number of defined adaptation actions, the inclusion of adaptation targets and indicators, and references to progress reporting.

Taking into account observations on the progress of other countries in their adaptation planning processes and the foundational policies, institutions, and knowledge base upon which it will be built, the report offers 13 mutually reinforcing issues for consideration as Canada develops its first NAS. These issues are organized into four main categories as presented below. Woven throughout all of them are the recurring themes of institutions, engagement, process, accountability, and inclusion.

  1. Set the stage for a successful NAS development process
  2. Include core elements for mobilizing federal action on adaptation
  3. Facilitate early and sustained action
  4. Position Canada as a leader on adaptation

Woven throughout all of them are the recurring themes of institutions, engagement, process, accountability, and inclusion.

Lessons Learnt

The preparation of its first NAS is an important opportunity for Canada to catch up with its international peers in devising a nationally owned, fit-for-purpose policy to address the impacts of climate change. The starting point for this effort is promising, given the breadth and depth of experience in climate risk management across the federal government and in other jurisdictions. The potential is far-reaching, as the strategy comes at a time when the urgency of adaptation is growing and the need to get Canada’s national house in order has never been greater. The trends, challenges, and opportunities identified in the report point to need for attention to be given to the issues related to institutions, engagement, process, accountability, and inclusion within the NAS development process.

Institutions: Planned adaptation is a governance issue. Without the institutional scaffolding needed to work across government jurisdictions and stakeholder groups, shared priorities cannot be identified, solutions scaled up, or a true picture of progress painted. The NAS needs to tackle the fragmented federal landscape of adaptation efforts and establish a structure that raises the political and public profile of this critical process, mobilizes sustained action, and keeps the different players and initiatives on track and speaking to each other. This must involve dedicated efforts to collaborate with Public Safety Canada (PSC) and draw from their extensive efforts in emergency and risk management. Having direct and regular reporting arrangements to the Prime Minister’s Office will also be important for institutional support.

Engagement:The comprehensiveness and implementability of the NAS will be strongly shaped by how the federal government engages different stakeholders. To really address the drivers of vulnerability in Canada and design measures that will help Canadians make different decisions, a wide range of stakeholders will need to understand the value of the NAS and see themselves in its content. This means going beyond consultations to investing in capacities for engagement and, once capacity is strengthened, co-designing processes and solutions.

Process:Adaptation is an iterative cycle of assessment, implementation, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL). Having a national-level policy that mandates and abides by such a process will be key to getting Canada on a strong resilience-building pathway. The discipline and reliability of having a regular national risk assessment cannot be underestimated. Unified assessment frameworks are also important, and they can evolve with each cycle. To manage climate risk, Canada must regularly and continuously assess it.

Accountability:One of the biggest issues confronting the international adaptation policy community is measuring progress. The Paris Agreement established a global goal on adaptation, and the global stocktake in 2023 will measure progress towards this goal, which has only increased countries’ interest in Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL). This is along with the targets and indicators countries are using to track their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework, which are also connected to adaptation. Canada’s upfront commitment to developing targets and a framework for measuring progress under its new climate plan is therefore timely and important. While the prevailing fixation on indicators is understandable, this should not distract from the need to establish a robust system, with structures, processes, and deliverables, that uses indicators as well as other tools to tell Canada’s story of progress in adaptation.

Inclusion:Finally, as conversations about social justice grow louder around the world, the opportunity to address gender equality and social inclusion through climate policy seems more urgent than ever. Canada can build on its recognized leadership in gender equality and women’s empowerment issues to champion these issues in climate change adaptation at home and abroad. But Canada can also do much more. Placing social inclusion at the heart of Canada’s efforts to manage climate risk also means advancing the priorities of Indigenous groups. This involves more than integrating Indigenous knowledge into how adaptation priorities are framed and addressed, and it goes beyond extensive and respectful consultation processes—although both of these are important. It also means acknowledging the structural causes of Indigenous vulnerability to climate risk across the country and aligning adaptation efforts with the ongoing process of reconciliation. Developing a NAS that demonstrates this commitment would undoubtedly position Canada as a global leader on just resilience.

As the report concludes, the opportunities inherent in developing Canada’s first-ever NAS are numerous and exciting. The NAS will be an important step towards consolidating the various investments the federal government has been making in climate risk management and crafting a unified vision and approach to preparing and protecting Canadians as they confront the accelerating impacts of climate change.

Suggested citation

Hammill, A., Parry, J. E., Ledwell, C., & Dazé, A. (2021). Toward a National Adaptation Strategy for Canada. Winnipeg, Canada: International Institute for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from

This publication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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