Most Canadian cities not prepared to cope with climate change

Dr. Jason Thistlethwaite, School of Environment Enterprise and Development/Dr. Daniel Henstra, Department of Political Science

Scientists are increasingly able to attribute extreme weather events to the influence of climate change. Flooding is Canada’s most costly and common climate change risk, and cities are most vulnerable since people and property are highly concentrated. Cities play an important role in mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts. They also attract people and industries and thus contribute substantial greenhouse gas emissions. As centres for innovation with direct control over their operations’ emissions, and with many planning tools available to them such as land use policies, cities are arguably best-positioned to govern and implement policies that prevent climate-related stress. 

The development of a climate change plan – a policy document that guides decision making on greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation efforts – represents a municipal government’s firm commitment to addressing climate change. Although these plans often do not contain anything binding, they establish goals for the future and strategies to achieve them. Given the importance of these plans, they should be high in quality. Plan quality has become an established framework for analyzing the contents of plans and assessing their strengths and deficiencies. Previous research on the Canadian context has examined municipal climate change plans within individual jurisdictions. This study, however, is the first to critically evaluate the content and quality of climate change plans of Canadian cities using a comprehensive plan-quality framework. The analysis presented is comprehensive and considers a broader set of plan quality characteristics than those used in previous studies.


We evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of climate change plans in 63 of the most populous Canadian communities, the majority of which were in Ontario and British Columbia.

To assess the quality of local climate change plans, we developed a coding protocol consisting of 46 indicators based on eight plan quality characteristics: fact base, goals, policies, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, inter-organizational coordination, participation, and plan organization and presentation. This included assessing the extent to which plans convey a commitment to addressing climate change and which included sufficient evidence and analysis to support adaptation and mitigation efforts. 

Following previous plan quality studies, an index score was calculated for each characteristic. In addition to our quantitative code-based analysis, we completed a qualitative assessment of plans to identify limitations in the ways in which the quality characteristics were presented. This included, for example, assessing whether specific actions were detailed in the policy, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation sections of plans, or whether plans included generalized actions.


Figure 1 presents the overall ranking of plan quality. Kingston, the Waterloo Region and Hamilton ranked highest, while Norfolk County, Maple Ridge and New Westminster scored lowest.

overall plan quality ranking

Figure 1: Overall plan quality ranking.

Many did not have a comprehensive fact base to inform their plans and most indicated awareness of climate change as a problem. The majority included emissions information including baseline year for GHG emissions, emissions inventory, a breakdown of their emissions inventory, and emissions forecasting. However, almost all failed to include an assessment of the municipality’s vulnerability to specific climate change impacts.

Goal setting was generally weak. Although most identified goals related to mitigation, including measures to reduce corporate and community emissions, adaptation goals were mostly general, rather than specific (i.e. reducing developments in vulnerable areas, which appeared in only 31% of the plans). 

Almost all had policies on communication, such as raising awareness of climate change and educating residents, and contained policies targeting sectors that contribute to reducing GHG emissions, such as those that promote renewable energy efficiency. Many contained policies related to transportation, land use, and the management of water, waste and natural resources. 

Although most did not include an explicit implementation section, the steps needed to realize plan policies were scattered throughout plans. Nearly all lacked specifics about processes and protocols to actually implement the plan in practice.

Most included quantifiable goals and policies, specifically related to GHG emissions. However, roughly half included a monitoring and evaluation section and general timelines for reporting on the results from monitoring. It was difficult, however, to assess the extent to which the monitoring and evaluation function had been carried out, because only a handful of municipalities reported these results.

Most described the evolution of the plan and identified stakeholders who participated in the planning process, however only 40% included the public. The majority did not provide a rationale for why stakeholders were engaged in this process, but rather simply listed the stakeholders involved. Only 35% discussed the purpose of broader participation at all.

Almost all were organized and presented in a clear and usable manner, but only 37% included a glossary of terms, which is useful given the esoteric terminology sometimes used in climate change discussions.


The findings indicate that there are significant variations and deficiencies in the quality of climate change plans in Canadian cities and how well-equipped they are to withstand extreme weather such as heat waves, ice storms, wildfires and floods. Many plans describe the process of inter-organizational coordination, include broad implementation and monitoring and evaluation provisions, and are clearly organized and presented. By contrast, plans generally fail to articulate clear adaptation goals, contain only a reasonably strong fact base, and reflect poor stakeholder engagement.

Guyadeen, D., Thistlethwaite, J. & Henstra, D. (2018). Evaluating the quality of municipal climate change plans in Canada. Climatic Change, online ISSN: 1573-1480.

Contact: Jason Thistlethwaite, School of Environment Enterprise and Development

For more information about WaterResearch, contact Amy Geddes.