Climate Change and the Adaptation of Transport Infrastructure

Authors: Dr. Adolf Ng and Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

1. Expected Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change has been occurring through the world’s climatic history with cooling (e.g. Ice Ages) and warming periods. However, there is a growing body of evidence underlining that human activities, such as the emission of greenhouse gases, are contributing to climate change. The natural (physical) processes of climate change are thus being compounded by anthropogenic factors leading to additional risks and uncertainties. Predictions about the nature and extent of climate change are complex, mainly due to due to the dynamics of weather systems, and the most salient risks are:

  • Rising sea levels. Both because of an increase in the average sea water temperature and releases from other water masses (e.g. ice caps), evidence underlines an ongoing rise in sea levels. This obviously presents risk for coastal areas, particularly for coastal transport infrastructure.
  • Increase in Arctic temperatures. Because of the receding ice cover, this may provide opportunities to shorten maritime shipping distances and to better access resources in the Arctic.
  • Increase in intense precipitation events. May impair air travel (e.g. turbulence) and damage transport infrastructure through flooding.
  • More frequent hurricanes. Increase the risk of coastal infrastructure damage and failure.
  • Heat waves. In addition to provide stress on the human physiology, heat waves can impact construction activity and may impair the integrity of road pavements.

Transportation provides crucial linkages along global supply chains and communications. Hence, transport systems being affected by climate changes, like rising water levels, extreme weather conditions and rising temperatures, would bear significant implications for the development and mobility prospects of regions around the world. For instance, air transportation has become an important support for long distance mobility. Climate change is likely to increase atmospheric turbulence and thus make air transportation more hazardous and more fuel could be spend by planes while flying to avoid areas of high turbulence. This could be particularly the case over the North Atlantic, which is the world’s most heavily used long distance air corridor.

Coastal areas are also vulnerable since 38% of the global population lives within 100 km from the coast with this share climbing to 44% for distances up to 150 km. For some countries such as Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh or the Netherlands, this share is much higher. For instance, 60% of the population of China lives in coastal provinces. Furthermore, most of the world´s largest urban agglomerations are in coastal area. Major coastal cities are also equipped with significant port infrastructure servicing hinterlands that depend on port facilities to access global trade. Thus, there is little doubt that transport infrastructures are highly vulnerable to the implications posed by climate changes.

2. Adaptation versus Mitigation

The exact impacts of climate change, apart from rising sea levels and flooding though storm surges, are still ambiguous. Thus, they are highly diversified in terms of what will be affected (e.g. airports, seaports, highways or inland ports) and how it will be affected. Indeed, considerable differences exist among regions due to specific local characteristics. Hence, each region has its own set of vulnerabilities and risks, underlining that when dealing with adaptation to climate change, apart from international best practices, local conditions should not be overlooked.

Moreover, many impacts posed by climate changes on transport infrastructures, like flooding, are gradual and moderate compared to other aspects, like hurricanes. This raised the question on whether adaptation of transport infrastructure to the risks of climate change was really necessary, or at least, a priority. For example, flooding are a regular occurrence among several of the world’s major river systems flowing through areas of high economic activity, such as China (Yangtze system), the United States (Mississippi system) and Western Europe (Rhine system). The impacts of climate changes on transport infrastructure can be perceived as moderate, or implicit, when compared to other priorities such as capacity and maintenance. There were so far little, or even no, incentive for transport managers to adapt to the potential challenges posed by climate change.

The above problems are partly due to a lack of resources (not just financial) to enable the effective implementation of solutions (even partial) in tackling the implications posed by climate change by transport infrastructures, particularly ports. These include reliable assessments about the nature of the risks and how to effectively adapt infrastructure and operations. Given the scarcity of reliable information, there lies the question about to what extent infrastructure managers and decision-makers understand the issue and the risks involved, not to mention the implementation of effective solutions.

For example, among many transport managers around the world, there is a misunderstanding between the concepts of adaptation and mitigation as they relate to climate change. However, they are fundamentally different concepts. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adaptation to climate change is the adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. It is different from mitigation, which is intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. In the current context where climate change appears to be unavoidable, resources are better spent towards adaptation or enhancing the resilience of transport infrastructure.

3. Towards Resilience

In general, transport infrastructures still clearly lack organizational resilience in adapting to the implications posed by climate change. This implies the ability of an institution to adapt to the consequences of (catastrophic) failure, including preparedness, protection, response and recovery (see Transportation and Disasters). Given the diversified nature between different regions around the world, adaptation is clearly highly localized which does not only require best practices, but also open and transparent information sharing, mutual-learning, effective cooperation with local authorities, as well as the ability for managers to apply such best practices in a local perspective.

Also, support for research and the collection of empirical evidence should be encouraged. This involves comprehensively defining and understanding the implications of climate changes, the risks involved as well as the possible effective adaptation approaches, thus minimizing misunderstanding and averting the rather low social awareness on this critical issue.

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