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Aeolus Perspectives 20th Edition: What change if climate changes: Transportation infrastructure under hazards


Night route illuminated by car and truck lights

Climate change is a fundamental matter for the infrastructures too. According to a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute each infrastructure system - including transportation one - is exposed to risks due to climate change. The way infrastructures are going to be adapted to these can be crucial for the current and future functioning of the overall transportation system. And maybe of the entire global community as well.

Talking about "climate change", we usually fix on matters such as global warming, the melting of ice and rising ocean levels, and a growing shortage of natural resources. They are all critical and fundamental, of course. However, climate change could also have non-negligible results on infrastructures, including transportation one. Climate change is revealing infrastructures' vulnerabilities. These assets involve huge investments for their engineering and construction. However, despite they are usually made to last long, so far they have typically been designed assuming a future climate such as today's one. Indeed, the quickly changing climate and the related extreme weather events reveal how much this building approach is outdated now. So infrastructures can often be over their tolerance levels causing direct threats to the assets and bad consequences for those relying on these. 

The McKinsey Global Institute has recently measured the impact of climate change, also exploring the overall risks over the next three decades ("Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts", January 2020). Then, trying to connect physical climate risk to socioeconomic impact, McKinsey analysts also investigated some specific cases. One of these deals with some of the major infrastructure systems, including transportation one ("Will infrastructure bend or break under climate stress?", June 2020). 

The McKinsey case study suggests each type of infrastructure system can have some specific elements that can prove to be vulnerable to some specific climate hazards. The report also maps the main risk areas defining the degree of potential intensity and also pointing different hazards that can directly strike the single infrastructure or even as a consequence of its interconnection and "dependence" with other assets. Because each type of infrastructure has also specific elements of vulnerability to specific climatic risks, more variables take part in defining the level of risk to which infrastructures are potentially exposed. 

Since it is widely distributed and interconnected, transportation infrastructure can be affected by relatively minimal climate hazards, resulting in really relevant societal impacts, however. For example, the main risk to the road infrastructure is represented by river and rain flooding. Although very large amounts of water are required to cause substantial physical damage to this infrastructure, it only takes 0.05 meters to limit the speed by even about 30%. And a 0.3-meter flood is enough to make the road impracticable. The combined effects of road closures are supposed to potentially increase the average travel time in flooded cities by 10% to even 55%. The chain reaction can produce a sensational surge in terms of additional costs and a disservice for both operators and citizens. 

Therefore, a necessary and substantial increase in spending on adapting current and future infrastructures so that they can face the risks associated with climate change is expected in the next years. The McKinsey analysts suggest that this process should consider not only capital mobilization but also a new approach aimed to reduce hazard exposure and to increase resilience.

As the report refers, the global infrastructure evolution over the next 50 years could be more crucial than we think. Designing and maintaining infrastructures without considering the potential risks due to climate change can translate into huge additional costs for the owners of the same infrastructures, for those who use daily them, and, ultimately, for the entire global community. The other way around, investing promptly in infrastructure development can help contain the costs of damage potentially caused by climate change and avoid much of the related knock-on effects.


VV. AA., "Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts", McKinsey Global Institute, January 2020 

VV. AA., "Will infrastructure bend or break under climate stress?", McKinsey Global Institute, June 2020 

TAGS: Sustainability, Aeolus perspectives, Transportation, Logistics