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Executive Summaries Mar 20, 2023

Climate Change – What Can Municipalities do?

Extreme weather events, floods, forest fires, water shortages during droughts, heat waves, freeze and thaw cycle problems; the impacts of climate change that municipalities, as local governments, must deal with are numerous. It is, therefore, legitimate to ask what powers they have in this area.

What Does the Law Say?

The various municipal statutes do not provide municipalities with specific climate change powers. However, the Municipal Powers Act allows municipalities jurisdiction over environmental and safety matters. They may also develop and operate, within their territory, the public required infrastructures for water supply and treatment.

Under their zoning authority granted by the Act respecting land use planning and development, they have the power to regulate or prohibit all or some land use or structures, considering the following:

  • The topography of the land;
  • The proximity to wetlands and water bodies;
  • The dangers of flooding, landslides, or other disasters; and
  • Any other site-specific factors that must be considered for public safety or environmental protection.

Regional county municipalities have jurisdiction over watercourses and have an obligation to restore the free flow of water when an obstruction threatens the safety of persons or properties.

Through these various powers, local and regional municipalities can certainly play a role in mitigating climate change. Indeed, when municipalities protect wetlands, they help avoid or minimize flooding since these natural environments play a significant role in retaining water and even filtering it.

By prohibiting construction in the riparian zone or floodplain or preventing expansion of existing structures, municipalities not only minimize the damage that could occur in the event of an extreme weather event but also ensure that, if necessary, a structure is demolished and rebuilt at a greater distance from the watercourse to restore the water's natural space.

In addition, when designing water or sewer systems, municipalities must consider these new climatic events that bring about significant rainfall disturbances and sudden temperature changes.

Municipalities Emergency Powers 

Unfortunately, as we know, climate change is already bringing its share of disasters. As a result, we feel it is important to provide a brief review of the municipalities emergency powers.

Under the Civil Protection Act, a municipality may declare a local state of emergency in all or part of its territory in the event of a major disaster, such as:

  • Flood;
  • Seismic tremor;
  • Ground movement;
  • Explosion;
  • Toxic emission; or
  • Pandemic.

When a local state of emergency is declared, the municipality may take certain actions that it would not be able to take under normal circumstances, for example:

  • Control access to traffic lanes or subject them to special rules;
  • Grant authorizations or waivers in areas of its jurisdiction to allow for the timely and efficient execution of response actions;
  • Order the evacuation of persons and ensure their accommodation, supply, clothing and safety; and
  • Make such expenditures and enter into such contracts as it deems necessary.

Even without a declaration of a local state of emergency, municipalities have certain emergency powers under the Cities and Towns Act or the Municipal Code. For example, in the event of a force majeure of such a nature as to endanger the life or health of the population or seriously deteriorate municipal facilities, the mayor of a municipality can award a contract and enter into agreements without prior consultation with or authorization by the municipal council.

However, municipalities only have financial assistance powers within those normally granted under the Municipal Powers Act. Instead, the Civil Protection Act provides that the government may establish financial assistance or compensation programs regarding actual or imminent disasters or other events that affect the safety of persons.

In short, although they do not have powers specifically related to climate change, municipalities have many tools at their disposal to adapt our cities and towns to these increasingly common disorders. They also have the authority to respond to emergencies and to rescue and protect their citizens. Municipalities - like other levels of government, businesses and citizens - can and must do their part in this fight that humanity must now wage.

Do You Have any Questions? We Have the Answers.

Do not hesitate to contact our team of municipal law specialists, who will be pleased to answer all your questions.

Check out our strategic file about the role played by businesses in the fight against climate changes, which includes a series of articles written by our experts.

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