Consideration of Climate Change Impacts in the Environmental Assessment of Bank Stabilization Projects in the North Shore Region, Québec

The Observatoire Québécois de l’adaptation aux changements climatiques (OQACC) at Université Laval; the Ouranos consortium; and the Sustainable Solutions Lab at University at Massachusetts Boston developed six case studies. This project was supported by Natural Resources Canada’s Climate Change Adaptation Program and the Government of Québec as part of the Québec Research Funds and the 2030 Plan for a Green Economy. These case studies identified factors that motivate jurisdictions to develop specific policy instruments in response to climate change, as well as others that facilitate their implementation and promote their positive outcomes.

Bank stabilization projects are considered to be climate change adaptations, but they can have significant environmental impacts and even accelerate coastal erosion in some cases. Environmental assessment of such projects is thus important to avoid adaptations that could increase some communities’ vulnerability to climate change.

The present case study, developed by the OQACC, pertains primarily to climate change adaptation in one of the Environmental Impact Assessment and Review Procedure’s (PÉEIE) tools: the directive regarding the conduct of an environmental impact study for bank stabilization projects. The case study also concerns the challenges encountered in the development and environmental assessment of bank stabilization projects in the North Shore region. Moreover, it underscores the importance of land-use tools for developing a long-term vision and for planning the relocation of some infrastructures when it is unavoidable.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

In Eastern Québec, climate change is causing a decrease in sea ice coverage in winter, thus contributing to an increase in the erosive impacts of waves on the coast. The increase in storm severity and relative rise in sea levels are also heightening the risks of erosion and submersion. Because of climate change, natural erosion and submersion phenomena are multiplying and intensifying. Where the road is far from the shoreline, coastal ecosystems may move towards the interior of the lands, and a new balance may develop. However, when it is closer, it prevents this shift and leads to a phenomenon called “coastal squeeze.”

In its 2013-2020 Climate Change Action Plan, the province of Quebec made a commitment to incorporate climate change consideration in the environmental authorization scheme. The environmental assessment process is intended to:

  • Prevent the deterioration of the environment’s quality and maintain the biodiversity, connectivity, productivity, and sustainability of ecosystems;
  • Ensure respect for the sensitivity of the physical, biological, and human components of the receiving environment;
  • Protect the life, health, safety, well-being, and comfort of humans; promote and support the population’s participation in the assessment of projects influencing their living environment

A guide to climate change and environmental assessment intended for developers, entitled Les changements climatiques et l’évaluation environnementale, was prepared to help with this consideration in the design of projects, impact studies and applications for environmental authorizations. It includes guidance on how to integrate climate projections into the environmental assessment including climate variables to consider such as changes in temperature and precipitation, floodplain mapping, emission scenarios, and time horizons.

Identifying Actions

The localities and human activities in this region are established along the estuary and the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Route 138 is the only access road to the communities in this region and it is threatened in several places by coastal erosion. The Québec’s Ministry of Transportation (Ministère des transports du Québec [MTQ]) is the most frequent applicant for environmental authorizations concerning bank stabilization projects in this region. Bank stabilization projects are frequently contemplated as adaptive solutions to these impacts of climate change. However, these projects may have significant negative environmental consequences, such as greater risks of erosion in the long term. If poorly planned, they may be maladapted and thus increase the vulnerability of the area to the effects of climate change. PÉEIE processes could help prevent maladaptation.

Once the impact study is deemed receivable, the Ministère de l’Environnement, de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques, de la Faune et des Parcs (MELCC) conducts an environmental analysis. In the case of a favourable recommendation, the file is then submitted to the Executive Council to obtain an authorization by decree. Environmental authorization always entails a series of conditions and commitments that the developer must fulfil to attenuate the impacts of the project in terms of the various issues identified.


The consideration of climate change as part of the PÉEIE process helps to improve bank stabilization projects, makes them more suitable and sustainable, better anticipates future costs, and will help developers reduce costs in the long run.

When the case study was developed in 2020-2021, the requirement for consideration of climate change was recent, and there were no examples of the inclusion of climate change in the environmental impact studies of bank stabilisation projects in that region. The MELCC had nonetheless been able to address climate change consideration in its questions and comments on the impact studies of two projects undergoing the PÉEIE process. The project for bank stabilization of the Mingan River was initiated by Québec’s Ministry of Transports in the municipality of Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan. The Englobe engineering consulting firm, which had conducted the impact study, argued that the design was robust, providing for a 100-year flood recurrence interval, whereas consideration of a 50-year flood recurrence is generally deemed acceptable. In a second series of questions and comments, the MELCC requested additional details and expressed reservations related to the fact that the flow rates considered far exceeded those set out in the Hydroclimatic Atlas of Southern Québec, which risked leading to an oversizing of the work. In response to this second series of questions and comments, the Englobe engineering consulting firm reported that it had correctly calculated the flood flows based on those measured in neighbouring stations. It was able to demonstrate that the 9.4% increase factor between the 50- and 100-year floods was close to the increase factor of the flood flow established in the Atlas, which was 6.9% at the 2050 horizon.

For the stabilization project in the sector of Rochelois Beach in Port-Cartier, a project initiated by the municipality of Port-Cartier providing for beach replenishment and a riprap breakwater, the MELCC requested details to ensure that the rise in sea level had been considered in the design.

Climate change can also be considered when a project is exempted from the PÉEIE. In April 2020, the village municipality of Pointe-aux-Outardes applied for an exemption from the procedure for an emergency beach replenishment project to the east of the municipal dock. Among the measures to be incorporated into the project to eliminate or reduce the intensity of the negative impacts and nuisance associated with the work, the governmental decree exempting the project stipulates the following:

Hazards resulting from climate and hydrological conditions that could occur during the life span of the protective work, that is, the replenishment, and that are likely to affect it must be considered in the design, planning and conduct of the project. Adaptation measures must be implemented, as needed, to adapt the project and sufficiently protect the environment, people and property for a duration equivalent to that of the project.

In the case of the village municipality of Pointe-aux-Outardes, the environmental assessment procedure began in 2008. It resulted in improved design but also caused significant delays.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

It has been mandatory since March 2018 to consider climate change impacts in projects that are subject to the PÉEIE. Climate change consideration is also specified as one of the conditions for conducting projects that are exempted from the procedure because of their urgent nature. The introduction of this requirement led to a period of transition where it had to be dealt with retroactively in already developed projects. In new projects, it is considered immediately at the design stage.

The barriers encountered by the MELCC and the developers include the following:

  • A transition period during which the tools were not all available and climate change had to be considered retroactively for projects where the impact study was already developed.
  • Because of the delays, projects often become urgent and must be exempted from the procedure.
  • The difficulty in carrying out fish habitat compensation projects in the same watershed (requirement of the DFO) prolongs the time frames.
  • One barrier to the adoption of beach replenishment is the fact that Québec engineers have less experience with these approaches.

Furthermore, there are several challenges involved in relocating sections of roads, including:

  • Significant costs;
  • Reluctance on the part of residents who would be obliged to move;
  • Sometimes requires zoning changes, expropriations or new environmental authorizations;
  • Takes longer to implement and is thus not favoured in an emergency.

Reflections on land use planning could include consideration of relocation options as well as the possibility of restoring the beaches and creating recreational tourism facilities on the banks. Relocation could become more acceptable if it were contemplated progressively for the long term and if it provided benefits for the communities. Additionally, a proactive consideration of relocation options can increase the opportunities these communities have, as waiting until the situation is urgent limits the options available and can result in long delays where dezoning is required.

Next Steps

Generally, and as expressed in its 2019–2023 strategic plan, the MTQ aims to make its management practices more preventive and intends to develop an integrated and concerted approach that will ensure management of contexts in which emergency or imminent emergency interventions take place.

Several avenues are noted by OQACC to move forward:

  • As part of its action plan for infrastructure management in the context of climate change, the MTQ is contemplating an integrated and concerted procedure to make its approaches more preventive. Significant progress should be seen over the next few years.
  • The investment in pilot projects and in the entire life cycle of the projects (including monitoring, maintenance and potential adjustments) by the MTQ and the disaster prevention programs would help promote soft approaches as well as an adaptation modulated over time (or adaptive management).
  • Consideration of the risks of erosion and of submersion by the Regional County Municipalities (RCM)s in their land use and development plans helps to develop a long-term vision, to open discussions with the local actors and various ministries concerned to be able to consider, more globally, the relocation of some sections of Route 138.