Infrastructure: Adapting our Infrastructure to Survive Climate Change

15 minute read

Updated on Fri Apr 30 2021

We have already discussed health infrastructure, but what about other infrastructure that we rely on? We can think of infrastructure as the physical or organisational systems and services that make up a society. This covers everything from travel and communication to the distribution of basic resources like water and energy. We can’t afford to lose these services so let’s explore how we might adapt them to a changing climate.

Infrastructure networks are key for successful adaptation

Why do we need to adapt our infrastructure?

Buildings shelter us from the elements, thereby protecting us against the worst effects of climate change. However, this protection only goes so far - the majority of infrastructure today was only designed to withstand existing climate extremes and seasonal variation. Moreover, infrastructure networks are closely interconnected; meaning any disruption in one system will have knock-on effects for others. Rapid climate change therefore poses threats to the long-term sustainability of how we interact as a society.

So what are the main threats and how might they impact our infrastructure? Firstly, the hotter our planet gets, the more likely our systems and services will also get too hot. Building materials respond to higher temperatures by expanding. This builds up as internal stress and causes structures to deform and become unstable, leading to buckled railways and the formation of cracks and potholes in roads.

Knock-on effects of heat risk

Another major threat to infrastructure is the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Extreme floods, storms and hurricanes all have a devastating and lasting impact on transport, communications and water supply networks. Globally, river and coastal flooding alone is predicted to cause increased structural damage worth trillions of dollars (US$).

Lastly, climate change will also affect how we interact with infrastructure. For example, on a hotter planet our demand for water and energy will likely increase. Indirectly, demand for infrastructure will also shift as different populations move in response to climate change.

By the end of the century, how might climate change affect the cost of infrastructure maintenance and repair?


The costs of disruption and maintenance quickly add up. In fact, the majority of current infrastructure maintenance is largely caused by climatic variability and already costs $391-647 billion USD per year in low- and middle-income countries. In Europe, these maintenance costs are expected to be 10 times higher by 2100 due to climate change.

Cost of Infrastructure damage will be much higher in the future

Even though they have upfront costs, climate-resilient buildings could be up to 4 times cheaper over their lifetime since they will, by their nature, last longer and cost less to maintain.

How do we build a more climate-resilient society?

If we want to build climate-resilient infrastructure, our first option is to build from scratch. In this case, we need to start with design standards that account for climate predictions. For example, the Confederation Bridge in Canada was built to withstand 1m of future sea-level rise. The work doesn’t stop there: during construction we can pick building materials that are able to absorb and store large amounts of heat energy, which naturally regulate the temperature and even prolong the life of the building. Architects can also use the shape and layout of a building to provide natural ventilation and better protection from the elements.

Can you spot the fake? Which of these is not an adaptation for climate-resilient infrastructure?


For key infrastructure links, it can be worth building extra ‘redundant’ versions as a backup in the event of a natural disaster. For example, if a major bridge was to collapse in a flood, a backup bridge would be there to save the day. Crucially, we need to monitor existing structures to reduce their risk of failure over time. With accurate forecasting, we can reduce the risk of disaster by adapting early and avoid having to make difficult decisions further down the line. If we really want to level-up, we can build multipurpose infrastructure, such as traffic tunnels which double as a funnel for excess stormwater.

To save time and money, another option is to upgrade the infrastructure we already have. This is called retrofitting. Examples include permeable pavements, raised roads and water fountains in public spaces. In Abu Dhabi, architects have attached geometric shades to the outside of skyscrapers that not only provide shelter from the sun but are even able to change their position in response to sunlight. Cool, right?

In fact, retrofitting can be as simple as installing heat sensors or painting our roofs, roads and railways white to reflect sunlight. If done properly, a white roof can reflect up to 80% of the sun’s energy, compared to just 5-10% for a black roof. Think how effective this could be given that pavements and roofs typically make up over 60% of urban surfaces.

Climate-smart design for cities

Another simple retrofitting solution is air conditioning (or AC). Unfortunately, AC is a double-edged sword because it can actually make the urban heat problem worse in the long run. This is because increased demand for air conditioning puts pressure on the energy grid: for every 1°C increase in temperature, electricity use in cities can increase by 2-4%! This generates more greenhouse gas emissions and increases temperatures.

Negative cycle of air conditioning

A more sustainable option, as discussed earlier, is to design buildings that better tolerate a wider range of temperatures. Alternatively, one particularly novel solution is to combine a renewable-powered cooling system with carbon capture technology (check out our other course on carbon capture!) for a real win-win.

1. Governance, Science & Policy

Adaptation will be a collaborative effort between governments, industry and local action. Successful adaptation should also make the most of available scientific expertise. For example, Earth scientists can help us by developing basic floodplain and geological maps to help us identify the safest places to build. In the energy sector, data scientists have identified areas prone to bushfires by using remote weather stations. By avoiding these high-risk areas, we can then decrease the likelihood of power cuts. This type of forward-thinking is really useful when redesigning urban areas and planning future infrastructure projects.

Within the construction industry, it is becoming increasingly important to find more efficient ways of dealing with waste and emissions and to establish stronger environmental regulations. For example, in France, new construction projects are encouraged to consider future climate risks early on. Unfortunately, the majority of environmental codes are not quite so modern - only 5 out of 35 OECD countries have up-to-date codes that mention climate change.

Adapting Infrastructure

2. Economics

Estimates for the global cost of adapting infrastructure range between $8-130 billion by 2030. That’s quite a lot of money, so how might we increase available funding?

To do this, we need to look to different sources of funding, from public and private grants all the way up to government schemes and multilateral development banks.

Given that 87-91% of funding for infrastructure comes from governments in low- and middle-income countries, there is a strong case for rethinking how (and by whom) governments are funded and where that money is then invested. In Fiji, the government has introduced the Environment and Climate Adaptation Levy - a 10% tax on luxury items and rich households. As of 2019, the levy has successfully generated over FJ$119 million (that’s roughly US$56 million), the majority of which has been spent adapting infrastructure including new bridges, seawalls and drainage systems.

3. Community Solutions

Through involving local communities when planning climate change adaptation, we can benefit from local knowledge. This could include traditional techniques for predicting severe weather events or restoring coastal habitats to protect both their inhabitants and the infrastructure on which they rely.

4. Green Infrastructure and Nature-based Solutions

We can also literally make our cities greener by creating more space for nature. For example, green roofs moderate high summer temperatures and absorb excess stormwater, and can even support mini farms.

Green Infrastructure can be very climate friendly

Why is green infrastructure useful?


These solutions are part of a larger idea called green infrastructure, as opposed to human-made ‘grey’ infrastructure. Green infrastructure looks to make use of natural features, like ponds, parks and woodland, to both improve urban living and help cities cope with climate change by soaking up excess stormwater and reducing local temperatures.

One study for example, found that investing $100 million per year in urban tree planting could potentially create enough shade to cut average temperatures by 1°C for 77 million people across the world. However, for this to be truly sustainable we need to make sure we have adequate water supplies or use drought-tolerant, and preferably native, tree species.

Tree cover and temperature

Nature can inspire architects too. This is called biomimicry and can be used to design infrastructure that’s better adapted to its environment - from buildings inspired by desert beetles and termite mounds for natural ventilation and temperature regulation, to hydropower devices based on seaweed.

Biomimicry

We can also adapt by taking inspiration from whole ecosystems. In China, urban planners have put one quarter of the country’s land under protection to boost access to freshwater and improve the land’s capacity to cope with natural disasters by allowing protected floodplains and waterways to hold surplus water.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that different places will experience different climatic risks. This means there is no simple roadmap for how to build climate-resilient cities. However, it is likely we will need a combination of both ‘green’ and ‘grey’ solutions in order to minimise locally relevant climate risks.

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