Climate Resilient Infrastructure:

Building Today
to Protect Tomorrow

Earlier this month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made headlines around the world when it produced a report that put humanity on “code red” with regards to the climate crisis. The conversations that surrounded the findings of the report had one common thread: it is time to become proactive.

Today we are going to take a look at how the infrastructure industry can become proactive in the battle against the effects of climate change. How, by building in a climate-resilient way, we can offset potential catastrophes and ensure a stronger, better future.

Why We Need Resilience

When most people consider the role of infrastructure in the fight against climate change, they are likely to think of the moves many governments and organisations are making towards renewable energy and efforts to embed circular economy practices throughout the supply chain. However, following the intensification of weather events such as flooding, wildfires and heatwaves, many are turning towards climate-resilient infrastructure as a key way to protect us from the most severe impacts of the changing climate.

The OECD defines climate-resilient infrastructure as being “planned, designed, built and operated in a way that anticipates, prepares for, and adapts to changing climate conditions. It can also withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions caused by these climate conditions.” The core tenet of resilience is that the asset is prepared for an uncertain future. Think roads that won’t melt in extreme heat, coastal barriers that can withstand flooding threats and power plants that can weather severe storms.

OECD modelling demonstrates the importance of building in a climate-resilient way. The modelling attempted to replicate the potential impact of a major flood in Paris. The results were alarming. Around 30%-55% of direct flood damage would be suffered by the infrastructure sector. Beyond this, 35%-85% of business losses were not caused by the flood itself, but by disruption to transportation and electricity supplies. This demonstrates why climate-resilient infrastructure is so vital. Not only does it improve the reliability of service provision over time, but it also increases asset life and protects asset returns. 

Experts believe that if we act now, we can ensure that key infrastructure will be able to withstand the impact of climate change. By integrating climate resilience into every stage of the project lifecycle, from planning right through to operations, not only will assets be securely protected but future generations will be far better equipped to tackle climate challenges in years to come.

Seven Strategies

The Hoover Institution produced a report in 2019 outlining seven key strategies for developing
infrastructure that can be classed as climate-resilient. The seven strategies are outlined as follows:

Make better decisions in
the face of uncertainty:

We cannot predict the future with complete accuracy anymore and modelling trends can only take us so far in the face of such environmental uncertainty. Decisionmakers need to learn how to make decisions that are best for the broadest amount of bad outcomes.

View infrastructure in
a systematic way:

Infrastructure exists within a deeply interconnected set of human, natural and built systems. Taking stock of this entire system when making decisions for the future will provide the “broadest, least expensive, and most effective opportunities to achieve reslience”.

Adopt an iterative,
multi-hazard approach:

Considering only one stressor at a time will not account for the full force of climate crisis. When infrastructure fails, it is because of a combination of breakdowns (social, technological, instituational etc). Multi-hazard approaches to infrastructure resilience will produce a much higher level of preparedness for extreme climate events.

Improve cost-benefit
analysis (CBA):

CBA, when conducted in the traditional way, will likely lead to less resilient infrastructure. CBA usually takes account of the upfront capital costs (which are most likely higher for climate-resilient infrastructure investments) without fully accounting for associated benefits. If we improve cost-benefit analysis and factor for the myriad of benefits offered by climate-reslient infrastructure (e.g., reduce operational and maintenance costs), decision making is likely to align with climate preparation goals.

Bring nature-based infrastructure into the mainstream

We cannot predict the future with complete accuracy anymore and modelling trends can only take us so far in the face of such environmental uncertainty. Decisionmakers need to learn how to make decisions that are best for the broadest amount of bad outcomes.

Take immediate action

There are a number of rapidly deployable measures which can be implemented at low incremental cost. By employing these measures as a starting point, we can push the industry in the right direction in the next few years.

Build back better

Global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have centred around ‘building back better’. These unprecendented investments in infrastructure are an opportunity to integrate climate-resilience into future infrastructure.

Eyes on Iowa

The U.S. state of Iowa serves as an excellent example of using historical data to increase the resilience of infrastructure in the face of climate threats. The state has a history of severe flooding, with one flood in 2008 causing $10 billion worth of damage. The increasing severity of flooding led to decision-makers taking action, when in 2010 the Iowa State Planning Act was signed into law, enshrining climate resilience into infrastructure planning. Following the legislation, infrastructure in the state has taken a new approach.

Iowa’s Department of Transportation (DOT), Iowa State University and the University of Iowa Flood Center utilised historical data on rainfall to “forecast peak discharge flows from two local basins that had recently experienced severe flooding events affecting primary interstate highways”. By revising earlier forecasting, the DOT was able to identify roads, bridges and other infrastructure that was particularly at risk from flooding. Once identified, this infrastructure was re-designed with elements that would reduce vulnerability to flooding and ensure robustness in the face of future climate impacts.

The Time is Now

Experts believe that if we act now, we can ensure that key infrastructure will be able to withstand the impact of climate change. By integrating climate resilience into every stage of the project lifecycle, from planning right through to operations, not only will assets be securely protected but future generations will be far better equipped to tackle climate challenges in years to come.

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Author:

Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

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