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Engineers Canada Releases National Guideline: Principles of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation for Engineers

In Canada, individual provinces and territories have complete authority to regulate the practice of engineering. Engineers Canada is a national organization that assists the twelve constituent associations in the preparation of suggested guidelines. These guidelines are an expression of general principles, which have a broad basis of consensus while recognizing and supporting the autonomy of each constituent association to administer its engineering act.

In May 2018, the Environment and Sustainability Committee of Engineers Canada – Canadian Engineering Qualifications Board released an updated guideline addressing climate change adaptation and mitigation. The guideline can be found here. Recent changes in weather patterns and deviations from historical climate ranges may adversely affect the integrity of the design, operation, and management of engineered systems. Successful climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies provide opportunities to reduce costs, maintain service levels, and protect public health and safety. Other notable benefits include a reduction in air-pollution, energy use and disruption from coastal hazards and extreme weather events while seeing improvements in biodiversity and human well-being.

Engineers are bound by their code of ethics to hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the protection of the environment and promote health and safety within the workplace”. It is the engineer’s duty to take all reasonable measures to ensure that engineered systems appropriately anticipate the impact of changing climate conditions. As an example, engineers and those who retain them for design of public facilities and infrastructure will have to accommodate climate change into their work to ensure public health and safety. Given the wide-spread awareness of this issue, engineers that do not exercise appropriate due diligence regarding climate change may ultimately be held personally or jointly liable for failures or damages arising from reasonably foreseeable climate impacts on engineered systems.

In the absence of clear legislation and regulation in climate change adaptation, this guideline provides engineers with 11 principles that constitute the scope of professional practice for Engineers to initiate climate change adaptation actions. The guideline discusses how to address the implications of climate change in professional practice, and how to create a clear record of the outcomes of those considerations. The application of this guideline will always be a matter of professional judgment.

The 11 principles are summarized into three categories:

Category #1 – Professional Judgment

  1. Integrate climate adaptation and resiliency into practice
  2. Integrate climate mitigation into practice
  3. Review adequacy of current standards
  4. Exercise professional judgement

Category #2 – Partnerships

  1. Interpret climate information
  2. Emphasize innovation in mitigation and adaptation
  3. Work with specialists and stakeholders
  4. Use effective language

Category #3 – Practice Guidance

  1. Plan for service life and resiliency
  2. Apply risk management principles for uncertainty
  3. Monitor legal liabilities

Each principle is clearly defined before commentary on that principle is provided. Finally, suggested implementation actions with examples for reference and planning are provided.

Since the release of the previous edition of the guideline in April 2017, the principles were updated to place a greater emphasis on resiliency. Principles #2 (integrate climate mitigation into practice)and #6 (emphasize innovation in mitigation and adaptation)were also added to provide guidance on the integration of climate change adaptation into existing practice focusing on the reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, and the implementation of technological innovations.


As per the guideline, resiliency is the “collective capacity and the ability to withstand stress including that caused by a changing climate”. It is inherent in engineering practice and professional judgment to apply a “factor of safety”. Similarly, engineers have always built “demand flexibility” into systems. An example of this is designing a bridge so that a span can easily be added in the future as traffic flow increases. The guideline now identifies the need to add ”climate flexibility” to improve resiliency. When engineers assess the required length of service, reasonable consideration should be given to the resiliency of an engineered system from the impacts of changing weather and climate conditions, over its operating life. This is done through applying life cycle costing and resiliency principles.

The guideline illustrated the application of resiliency principles in design with the following examples:

“In some cases, Engineers will have little choice but to armour structures against rare extreme events – for example, the 9.4-foot storm surge that Hurricane Sandy pushed into lower Manhattan in 2012. However, using a rare flood or storm as a design standard is expensive, since it may require building new structures or retrofitting existing ones with enough protective features to withstand stresses that may occur only once in a lifetime, if at all.

In contrast, designing projects so they are “safe to fail”, is an option that may be cheaper and more efficient. For example, a community might opt to build a dam with capacity to contain a 100-year flood, and then develop a comprehensive evacuation plan for the surrounding area in the event of a more severe flood. This strategy anticipates that the dam may not control extreme flooding but adds other protective measures for higher levels of safety.

Flexible adaptation strategies can be retrofitted into existing facilities in stages as climate change impacts become more clear in different locations. Examples include modular seawalls that can be raised as needed; prefabricated highway bridges that can be elevated as peak flows beneath them rise; and floating intake systems at water treatment plants, designed to rise and fall as reservoir levels change. An incremental approach has fewer social and environmental impacts than building huge structures in one phase – if the operation can keep up with climate-induced changes. Flexible adaptation is a valuable alternative approach and will be appropriate in certain cases. When an engineer starts planning climate adaptation actions, the needs vary by site according to vulnerability assessment results, analysis of alternatives and timelines for each project.”

Climate Mitigation & Technological Innovations

Within the context of this model guideline, mitigation refers to “technological change and changes in activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or enhance removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the anthropogenic emissions causing climate change”.

Engineers are now asked to identify, develop and use the best technology to reduce GHG emissions. Examples of solutions range from energy conservation, carbon-neutral energy conversions including fuel-switching, efficient carbon combustion processes, to other advanced technologies in renewable energies. The guideline suggests engineers can start by reviewing the local design standards to determine if they are reflective of current technological capabilities or are based on less efficient, older technologies. Code and standards serve as a minimum requirement and should be viewed as the starting point to accommodate a local condition of future climate considerations. In addition, there are great resources available to engineers, such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) GHG emissions inventories. It is the engineer’s role is to be aware of the best available information and resources.

The guideline highlights the importance for engineers to understand the emerging policy frameworks at all levels of government in order to successfully deploy innovations. In Canada, innovation for climate adaptation is largely done in partnership with federal and/or provincial funds and non-government organizations. Innovative concepts and technologies for mitigating GHGs within municipalities for buildings and infrastructure are largely inspired by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) using Green Municipal Funds provided by the federal government. Examples include the requirement of climate change considerations in infrastructure procurement and the inclusion of climate risk and impacts as part of environmental impact assessment. This systems approach supports innovation by strengthening the innovation process to overcome existing barriers of development and deployment, while aligning with the needs and opportunities of the industry.

As a result, the issues surrounding climate change mitigation are multidisciplinary. Innovative approaches for financing adaptive measures requires not only engineering solutions and alternative options, but new ways to raise capital that require the expertise of complementary professions such as law and finance. Engineers should engage with these professions to develop fully integrated solutions that extend beyond the current focus of adaptation and into mitigation.

We congratulate Engineers Canada on the development of this important and timely resource to help illuminate the evolving role and responsibility of engineers in light of climate change considerations.

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