B.18 – Climate Change and the Adaptation of Transport Infrastructure

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Climate change is expected to have notable impacts on transport systems, mainly because of the risks of rising sea levels, more precipitation events, and heat waves.

1. Expected Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change has occurred throughout 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 the dynamics of weather systems and feedback effects, such as the positive impacts of carbon dioxide on plant growth. The most salient risks are:

  • Rising sea levels. Both because of an increase in the average seawater temperature and releases from other water masses (e.g. ice caps), evidence underlines an ongoing rise in sea levels. This presents a risk for coastal areas, particularly for coastal transport infrastructure such as ports.
  • 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. However, this benefit is counterbalanced by the degradation of the permafrost soil layer, which increases instability and can damage the foundation of Arctic transport infrastructures.
  • 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 due to wind and flooding.
  • Heat waves. In addition, to provide stress on human physiology, heat waves can impact construction activity and may impair the integrity of road pavements and other structures such as bridges.

The real risks and their impacts remain to be comprehensively assessed. Transportation provides crucial linkages along global supply chains and communications. Therefore, transport systems being affected by climate change, like rising water levels, extreme weather conditions, and rising temperatures, would have 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 make air transportation more hazardous; planes could spend more fuel to avoid areas of high turbulence. This could be particularly the case over the North Atlantic, which includes the world’s most heavily used long-distance air corridors.

Coastal areas are also vulnerable since 38% of the global population lives within 100 km of the coast, with this share climbing to 44% for distances up to 150 km. This share is much higher for countries such as Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Netherlands. For instance, 60% of the population of China lives in coastal provinces. Furthermore, most of the world’s largest urban agglomerations are in coastal areas. Concerns have also been raised for small island states that may be more vulnerable to climate change as well as depending more on coastal infrastructure.

Major coastal cities are also equipped with significant port infrastructure servicing hinterlands that depend on port facilities to access global trade. From a supply chain perspective, strategies such as “just-in-time” involve lower inventory levels and a constant circulation of supplies, which is more vulnerable to disruptions. Thus, there is little doubt that transport infrastructures are highly vulnerable to the implications posed by climate change.

2. Adaptation versus Mitigation

Apart from rising sea levels and flooding through storm surges, the exact impacts of climate change are still ambiguous. Thus, they are highly diversified regarding 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 and supply chain has its own set of vulnerabilities and risks, underlining that when dealing with adaptation to climate change, apart from international best practices, local conditions, and how a particular infrastructure services supply chains should not be overlooked.

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 of whether adaptation of transport infrastructure to the risks of climate change was essential, or at least, a priority. For example, flooding is 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 change on transport infrastructure can be perceived as moderate, or implicit when compared to other priorities such as capacity and maintenance. So far, there have been little or no incentives for transport managers to adapt to the potential challenges of climate change.

The above problems are partly due to a lack of financial and planning resources 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 adapt infrastructure and operations effectively. Given the scarcity of reliable information, there lies the question of to what extent infrastructure managers and decision-makers understand the issue and the risks involved, not to mention implementing practical solutions.

For example, among many transport managers, 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 of natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates impacts or exploits beneficial opportunities. It is different from mitigation, which is an intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. In the current geopolitical context where climate change appears to be unavoidable, resources are better spent on adaptation or enhancing the resilience of transport infrastructure.

3. Towards Resilience

The increase in global average temperature is a factor behind the severity and frequency of weather events, many of which are disruptive. This is likely to be related to additional damage to transportation infrastructures, particularly those in coastal low-lying areas. Ports and rail infrastructure are particularly vulnerable since they could be damaged or temporarily isolated. This forces the re-routing of passengers and freight flows, impacting the cost and performance of supply chains. Further, climate change is likely to impact the distribution of agricultural production to new regions, which will affect the flow of agricultural goods and may require the setting of new transport infrastructure.

In general, transport infrastructures still lack physical and organizational resilience in adapting to the implications posed by climate change. Advance forecasting is critical since it requires 72 to 96 hours to shut down and prepare critical infrastructure for a disruptive weather event such as a hurricane. This implies the ability of organizations to adapt to the consequences of (catastrophic) failure, including preparedness, protection, response, and recovery. Further, new infrastructure must be built considering the expectations about weather conditions throughout its lifespan. Given the diversified regional nature around the world, adaptation is highly localized, which requires not only best practices but also information sharing, mutual learning, effective cooperation with local authorities, and the ability for managers to apply such best practices from a local perspective.

Also, support for research and collecting empirical evidence devoid of political and ideological biases is of core importance. This involves comprehensively defining and understanding the implications of climate change, the risks involved, and the possible effective adaptation approaches, thus minimizing unintended consequences. Otherwise, there is the risk that climate change policies and mitigation could have more negative consequences than benefits, including:

  • Higher resource and energy costs because of policy-derived scarcity. The outcome would be particularly negative on the poorest segments of the population, notably in developing economies. A division between unaffected virtue-signaling elites and the working class could become salient.
  • Limitation on trade and access to goods and services. Some resources, goods, and services could be restricted from access and available in much lower quantities.
  • Curtailing innovations through the imposition of norms such as ESG. The conventional innovative process could be sidetracked by limitations such as permissible energy sources, raw materials, and compliance with regulations.
  • Limitation on personal mobility options and the related economic opportunities. Some forms of transportation, such as the automobile and air travel, could be restricted, impeding employment, personal, and recreational opportunities.
  • Restrictions on civil rights through imposed locational and consumption behavior and penalties for uncompliant behavior. This can go as far as penalizing groups and individuals for expressing doubts and reservations concerning public policy and its effectiveness.

Related Topics


  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.
  • Jaroszweski, D., L. Chapman, and J. Petts (2010) “Assessing the potential impact of climate change on transportation: the need for an interdisciplinary approach”, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 331-335.
  • Koetse, M. J., and P. Rietveld (2009) “The impact of climate change and weather on transport: An overview of empirical findings”, Transportation Research Part D, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 205-221.
  • Koetse, M. J. and P. Rietveld (2012) “Adaptation to Climate Change in the Transport Sector”, Transport Reviews, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 267-286.
  • UNCTAD (2020) Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation for Coastal Transport Infrastructure: A Compilation of Policies and Practices, New York: United Nations Publications.