Chapter 8 - British Columbia

Key Findings

Climate change is increasingly affecting British Columbia's landscapes, communities and economic activities. Future projections show that climate change will continue and suggest that direct and indirect impacts will become more pervasive. The following are some of the key risks and adaptation opportunities associated with climate change in BC:

Many regions and sectors of British Columbia will experience increasing water shortages.  Smaller glaciers, declining snowpack, shifts in timing and amount of precipitation, and prolonged drought will increasingly limit water supply during periods of peak demand. Competition amongst water uses will increase and have implications for transborder agreements. Ongoing adaptive measures include the incorporation of climate change impacts into some official water management plans, upgrades to reservoir capacity and various demand management initiatives.

Hydroelectric power generation, especially during (increasing) peak energy demands in summer, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Hydroelectricity currently accounts for nearly 90% of BC's power supply. Adaptation will involve managing electricity demands, which are expected to increase by 30 to 60% by 2025, and updating power-generating infrastructure, both of which are already part of current planning and management measures. Small hydro and 'run of river' alternatives can increase capacity but are more vulnerable to variable river flows than are facilities with large storage reservoirs. Alternative 'clean' sources of energy, such as wind power, will help meet increasing energy demands in the future, but are currently only a small contributor to BC's power supply. Coal-fired generating plants are also being considered, although their status is uncertain as they must now meet strict new zero net emissions targets established by the recently released BC Energy Plan.

Increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather and related natural hazards will impact British Columbia's critical infrastructure. Windstorms, forest fires, storm surges, coastal erosion, landslides, snowstorms, hail, droughts and floods currently have major economic impacts on BC's communities, industries and environments. In low-lying coastal areas, certain risks will be magnified by sea-level rise and increasing storminess. The costs associated with managing and reducing impacts of extreme events are rising. British Columbia's transportation network, port facilities, electricity and communications distribution infrastructure are major investments where replacements or upgrades present adaptation opportunities for incorporation of revised hazards assessments that consider changing climate conditions and sea-level rise. Integrated stormwater management, an approach adopted by the Greater Vancouver Regional District, aims to manage stormwater run-off to protect urban stream health and includes consideration of climate change impacts. Integrating climate change and sea-level rise into infrastructure planning improves risk and life-cycle cost management, and will reduce the vulnerability of BC's critical infrastructure.

British Columbia's forests, forest industry and forestry-dependent communities are vulnerable to increasing climate-related risks, including pest infestations and forest fires.  As of 2007, the mountain pine beetle outbreak affected approximately 9.2 million ha of BC's forests. The severity and longevity of this outbreak are linked to past management practices (e.g. fire suppression) and climate change. Major hydrological and ecological changes are expected in pine-dominated watersheds as a result of tree mortality and massive increases in logging activity to salvage beetle-killed timber. Initial economic gains will be substantial, but may give way to longer term social and economic instability without careful planning. Increasing international competition in the forestry sector will result in additional future challenges. The Future Forests Ecosystem Initiative of the BC Ministry of Forests and Range represents an early step toward long-term forest management planning that considers climate change in conjunction with other pressures.

Climate change will exacerbate existing stresses on British Columbia's fisheries. Future impacts include invasion of coastal waters by exotic species, rising ocean and freshwater temperatures, and changes in the amount, timing and temperature of river flows. Freshwater fisheries may experience increased water management conflicts with other uses (e.g. hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, drinking water), particularly in the southern interior. The vulnerability of Pacific salmon fisheries in both freshwater and saltwater environments is heightened by the unique social, economic and ecological significance of these species. Aquaculture, an increasingly important element of economic development on the coast, has potential to enhance food security while lessening the stresses on wild fisheries. However, the cultural and ecological impacts of aquaculture, and salmon farming in particular, are controversial.

British Columbia's agricultural sector faces both positive and negative impacts from climate change.  Changes in precipitation and water supply, more frequent and sustained droughts, and increased demand for water will strain the adaptive capacity of most forms of agriculture. Growing conditions may improve in some regions or for some crops, although the ability to expand agricultural regions will be constrained by soil suitability and water availability. Increasing demand for irrigation will have to compete with other water uses, especially in areas of high growth.

Integrating climate change adaptation into decision-making is an opportunity to enhance resilience and reduce the long-term costs and impacts of climate change.  Currently, this happens indirectly in larger urban centres, where sustainable building practices and demand management of water and energy arise from efforts to enhance sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Drought-prone regions, such as the Okanagan region and the Victoria Capital Regional District, have aggressive restrictions on watering and rebates for high-efficiency consumer product replacements that have both adaptation and mitigation benefits for climate change. In remote coastal and rural communities, resilience arises from experience and exposure to the impacts of extreme weather on critical infrastructure (e.g. coastal highways, ferries, air service, power generation and communication) and on natural resources (e.g. fisheries and forests). Social networks, volunteerism, income diversification and food stockpiling also contribute to adaptive capacity and enhance resilience.