Infrastructure: Adapting our Systems and Services to Survive Climate Change

8 minute read

Updated on Fri Apr 30 2021

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. These networks are closely interconnected, meaning any disruption in one system will have knock-on effects for others. We can’t afford to lose these services so let’s explore how we might adapt them to rapid climate change.

How do we build a more climate-resilient society?

1. Climate-smart design

If we want to build climate-resilient infrastructure, our first option is to build it from scratch. For essential services, like healthcare, we can start by making sure that everyone has basic access by building hospitals and clinics where they are most needed. For example, in areas vulnerable to flooding, like Bangladesh, some communities now use ‘floating hospitals’. We can also adapt our healthcare systems by recruiting more nurses and doctors and providing them with training on the health risks of climate change and how to treat them.

Floating Hospitals

The next step is using climate-smart design ideas such as choosing building materials that absorb and store large amounts of heat energy to naturally regulate indoor temperatures. Climate-smart design can also involve entirely new technologies, such as external building shades that move in response to sunlight or typhoon-resistant houses that can withstand wind speeds of up to 180km per hour.

2. Retrofitting

To save time and money, another option is to upgrade the infrastructure we already have. This is called retrofitting. 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.

Climate-smart design

In the previous chapter we looked at how sustainable water management will be vital if we are to adapt to our changing climate. A lot of this can be done by adapting our existing water supply network; simply fixing leaky water pipes could help prevent the loss of 20-30% of treated water!

Fixing Leaky Pipes

Moreover, upgrading our systems and services could play a big role in keeping us healthy too. For example, we can limit the spread of disease during flooding by updating our coastal defences and sewage systems to deal with excess stormwater.

3. Green Infrastructure

We can also make our cities greener by creating more space for nature. For example, natural features, like ponds, parks and woodland can help cities cope with climate change by soaking up excess stormwater and reducing local temperatures. These types of solutions are called green infrastructure, as opposed to human-made or ‘grey’ solutions.

Green Infrastructure

Why is green infrastructure useful?


Green infrastructure can also improve people’s health. For example, increased plant life in urban areas has been shown to reduce heat-related death rates by 40-90% and is also linked to reduced stress levels and a stronger sense of community.

4. Nature-based solutions

At a larger scale, natural habitats can provide more affordable and long-term adaptation options.

How do coastal habitats (think coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds) protect against natural disasters?


Coastal habitats are a brilliant example as they provide important physical protection against natural disasters by reducing wave height by an average of 35-71%. They also absorb and store carbon, prevent the intrusion of saltwater on farmland, and are home to a rich array of plants and animals. For example, the benefits of having healthy mangrove forests are 10 times higher than the costs of maintaining them and 2 to 5 times cheaper than human-made coastal defences.

Benefits of Mangroves

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 a climate-resilient society. However, it is likely we will need a combination of both human-made and nature-based solutions in order to maintain the basic systems and services that we rely on.

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