With Europe sweltering in record temperatures this July, freelance journalist Kit Muckle asks: can our transport infrastructure stand the heat?
With the mercury rising this European summer, touching and even exceeding 40℃, the continent’s roads, railways and airports – often aging assets, never designed for such extreme temperatures – are being pushed to the absolute limit.
Of course, there are even more devastating frontline impacts of our increasingly volatile climate on countries, countryside, communities, coastlines, ecosystems and the lives of families and people.
Socio-economic effects of extreme weather events
But with climate scientists predicting more frequent super-heatwaves in the years ahead, it is also understandable that there are growing concerns for the impact weather events are having on the economy and society.
Whenever transport infrastructure and services are affected by extreme weather – floods and storms as well as stifling heat – there are always major socio-economic repercussions, locally and nationally. Severe weather events cause multi-billion dollar financial fallouts and have wide-reaching consequences for people’s health, wellbeing and lifestyle choices.
While most transport systems and infrastructure are very durable and can handle most conditions, they were often designed for the temperatures and storms of the past.
Today’s extreme weather can have a devastating impact on the safety of these systems and the expected lifespan of infrastructure. All of a sudden, our established ways of moving from A to B are in serious peril – unreliable, unpredictable, unsuitable, unsafe.
Emma Howard-Boyd, head of the UK’s Environment Agency and interim chair of the Green Finance Institute, says £650bn of infrastructure projects in Britain could be under threat if climate change is not taken more seriously.
Leadership, innovation and collaboration are needed across the sector
For governments, agencies and companies involved in building, managing and improving major infrastructure projects, this summer’s weather has been another timely reminder that they must not only acknowledge, address and adapt to the broader and deeper impacts of climate change but also urgently mitigate the effects of the short-term disruption and pain it is causing.
This will demand comprehensive risk assessments for all current infrastructure assets and robust and rigorous planning for those being built. For this to succeed, there will need to be strong leadership, innovation and cooperation between all the different parties.
In October 2021, the Global Infrastructure Initiative (GII) brought together business leaders from Europe and North America, representing the rail, road and airport sectors, to share ideas and best practices for climate challenges.
They found that data analysis will be absolutely vital in preparing for and responding to climate events. The transport and infrastructure sector must collaborate with climate scientists to build predictive models which inform risk management and prioritise key actions to reduce the exposure of assets to damage and disruption.
Design must be in step with the new reality. Cutting edge climate science and the latest data must be woven into infrastructure design specifications.
Organisational capacity and skills must be developed to properly assess, manage and prepare for future extreme climate events. Building these capabilities in-company, and partnering with organisations with this expertise is a top priority for the infrastructure industry.
We must cut emissions – but proactive, short-term solutions are also needed
We can’t escape the fact that emissions from road, rail and air travel significantly contribute to global greenhouse emissions, which, in turn, leads to extreme weather.
Thankfully, there are more ways emerging to make transport and travel options greener – more efficient vehicle technology, using lower- or non-carbon energies and actively changing our travel habits and the way we move goods.
Ultimately, climate change is an existential challenge. So, dramatically reducing these emissions is the only sure fire way to secure the future of our transport infrastructure – and, indeed, the future of everything else.
We know this cannot and will not happen overnight. But sensible and positive steps can be taken in the meantime.
How infrastructure companies can adapt to climate change
Transport infrastructure companies’ climate change strategies must include measures around adaptation to extreme weather phenomena, as a central pillar.
Firms must seek to limit risks and impacts, reduce vulnerabilities and increase the resilience of the infrastructure projects that they construct and operate.
They must work closely with leading climate change experts to develop better ways to identify, assess and quantify physical risks and establish adaptation and mitigation measures.
These plans could include:
- Considering future climate events in project design.
- Climate risk emergency plans.
- Preventive maintenance on infrastructure projects.
- Insurance policies covering the cost of repairs in the event of major incidents.
Climate change is without question the main challenge facing humanity today. It requires urgent action in terms of mitigation and adapting infrastructure to reduce its consequences.
Companies, consortia and governments must continue to rethink and rebuild smarter, sustainable and innovative infrastructure and transport systems which can survive and function safely and reliably in a hotter world.