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Feature - Issue #8

Future Proof

Words by Stuart Spray

As climate change-induced extreme weather events ravage countries across the world, leading to destruction, death and displacement, governments and planners are having to rethink infrastructure alongside cutting carbon emissions.

It is difficult to remain optimistic in the face of the news this past year: extreme weather events across the world, from wildfires and floods to heatwaves and hurricanes, have devastated every continent on Earth. UN secretary general António Guterres offered a glimmer of hope in his response to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report in August, which he described as a “code red for humanity”, but added: “If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe.” There is a feeling that, as world leaders descend on Glasgow for COP26 to discuss ways forward, this may be the last chance to find a way to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. The increasingly unpredictable weather of the past year has served to underline the consequences of failure.

Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, warns that although people are “joining the dots” about the link between the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather around the world and climate change, the trend of more heatwaves, wildfires and flooding will increase until the climate crisis is under control.

“The earliest date that has been discussed for the world to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions is 2050,” says Ward. “Which means that for at least the next three decades, the impacts of climate change are only going to grow worse. And we’re going to have to learn to cope with them better than we currently are.”

He says investment is urgently needed to future proof infrastructure projects: “Anything built now, like houses, roads and railways, will have to be resilient to the climate of the future and existing infrastructure that can’t cope will have to be retrofitted.”

Many towns and cities face the prospect of increased flooding due their poor drainage systems which, in many cases, already can’t cope when it rains hard. Flooding events like those experienced in London, UK, this summer, causing power cuts, leaving vehicles stranded and seeing tube stations underwater, are likely to become more regular and damaging unless the largely Victorian drainage system is upgraded to accommodate the expected rise in heavier rainfall over the next 30 years.

A man uses a tree branch in an attempt to put out the flames of a wildfire in Iboudraren village, in the mountainous Kabylie region of Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, Algeria, 2021. (Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo / Abdelaziz Boumzar).

After Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans in 2005, killing over 1,800 people and causing $125bn in damage, the city designed a new Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System costing $14.5bn to protect against another once-in-a-century storm.

On 28 August 2021, just three years after the sea defenses were completed, Hurricane Ida hit the city, bringing with it 150 miles per hour winds, heavy rainfall and flash flooding, and killing at least 46 people. But despite considerable damage, which left more than a million people with no power, the 350 miles of levees, floodwalls and floodgates remained intact.

However, says Ward, the big question is not whether sea defences work now but whether they “will cope with even stronger storms and the higher sea levels that we’re going to see over the coming decades”.

Last year the World Meteorological Organization reported that the period from 2011 to 2020 was the hottest decade since records began, with the top three warmest years being 2016, 2019 and 2020. And recent research published by the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) shows that extreme weather events have almost doubled over the last twenty years.

These findings are supported by more recent events. In the first week of July 2021 temperatures soared to a record 49.6C in western Canada and were responsible for 500 deaths. This was highest temperature ever recorded north of the 50th parallel, and the following day the 250 strong population of Lytton, British Columbia, was evacuated as wildfires swept through the town. July 2021 also saw record breaking temperatures of 54.4C, recorded at Death Valley National Park in the US, and 31.4C in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

According to FloodList, an online news website funded by the EU, July 2021 was one of the worst months on record for extreme flooding across the globe with 124 flood events recorded in 385 locations in more than 20 countries. At least 920 people are known to have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced with their homes and livelihoods destroyed. The worst affected countries included Belgium, Germany, India, China and Afghanistan.

Trees on the side of a mountain covered by smoke from a forest wildfire, Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, 2021. (Photograph by iStock)

‘More investment is needed in critical infrastructure in developing countries and international cooperation is vital to make this happen.’

— Mami Mizutori

Events like these have accelerated the need for national strategies for disaster risk reduction. The UNDRR reports that 101 such strategies have been put in place since UN member states adopted the global plan to reduce disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, in 2015. But many low and middle-income countries simply lack the basic resources to implement them.

“The world is facing planetary emergencies on an unprecedented scale, including the pandemic threat, global warming, deforestation and desertification, growing poverty and hunger,” says Mami Mizutori, the UN secretary general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction and head of the UNDRR.

“The cost benefits of investing in multi-hazard early warning systems and resilient critical infrastructure should be clear to everyone if we want to reduce the record numbers of people being displaced by disasters, some 31 million in 2020. Covid should have taught us the folly of ignoring warnings and failing to invest in prevention and mitigation.

“Investment in disaster risk reduction generally represents a large saving in terms of avoided losses and reconstruction costs, with cost benefit ratios ranging from 3:1 to 15:1 or higher in some cases. The investment in disaster resilient infrastructure has meant that major loss of life has been averted and the extent of economic losses has been mitigated considerably.

“More investment is needed in critical infrastructure in developing countries and international cooperation is vital to make this happen.”

But particularly for developing countries, that investment is hard to come by. The IPCC report confirmed that climate change is widespread, getting worse, happening now and caused by human activity. It predicted an increase in life threatening heatwaves, extreme weather, floods and drought unless global warming was limited to 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. But it also warned that the African continent is warming faster than the rest of the world and is experiencing increasingly longer, more frequent and more intense heat waves.

Power line poles are seen downed by Hurricane Ida in Houma, Louisiana, US, 2021. (Photography by Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo / Nick Wagner).

Chloe Brimicombe is a PhD student studying Pan-African heatwave health hazard forecasting at the University of Reading, UK. Brimicombe’s research shows that although heatwaves are under-reported, under-researched and underfunded on a global scale when compared with flooding and storms, Africa, where resources are often scarce, has some of the least reported heatwaves in the world.

“In countries like Ghana, despite a lack of reporting, we know that exposure to extreme heat can result in excess deaths. This is particularly true for miners and farmers. Farmers are also impacted by low yields in crops such as maize,” she says.

“Health ministries are taking a lead, but there is a lack of communication between government departments, meaning there is a lack of cross-sector projects. There is also a lack of funding and resources with money going elsewhere, often towards other health issues or hazards.”

Brimicombe says that while her research demonstrates the need to address all of the weather hazard risks, which are increasing as a result of climate change, she stresses that “we are not all starting from the same resources and funding point”.

Hurricane Delta causes damage to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, US, 2020. (Photography by iStock).

It is clear that many of the countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis do not have the finances to improve early warning systems and flood defences or build resilient infrastructure. In those cases, Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) is increasingly being seen as a cost-effective way to tackle climate change by improving the management and conservation of ecosystems.

City Adapt is funded by the UN Environment Programme and promotes climate resilience in urban areas. The Mexican city of Xalapa claims to be the first Latin American city to embrace EbA by using a green belt of cloud forest to help it fight climate change.

Rapid expansion and deforestation had led to concerns about fluctuating temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and frequent flooding from mountains into the city. Deputy director of planning, Angélica Moya, hopes that plans to reforest and restore the Cerro del Estropajo cloud forest has the effect of stabilising the soil, preventing landslides, locking in carbon, promoting water absorption and reducing the likelihood of flooding. “This is an opportunity to rethink the way we build the city,” she says.

Another City Adapt project is in Kingston, a coastal city in the south of Jamaica. It too has suffered from flooding. Particular emphasis was made in the planning process to protect and enhance the mangroves in the coastal intertidal zones close to Greenwich Town. Not only do mangroves act as flood defence but they are better at storing carbon than terrestrial forests and provide refuge and spawning grounds for fish.

The Mathare River, a tributary of the Nairobi River basin, is extremely polluted with human, animal and industrial waste. After a period of heavy rain, the river floods, Kenya, 2020. (Photograph by Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo).

Soldiers transfer trapped people in Suizhou city, Central China’s Hubei Province, 2021. (Photograph by Sipa US / Alamy Stock / Chen Yifan).

‘Restoring nature, at scale, is hugely urgent to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.’

— Kathryn Brown

Kathryn Brown, interim director for Climate Action for The Wildlife Trusts, says the percentage of greenspace in UK urban areas has dropped from 63% in 2001 to 55% in 2020. The Wildlife Trusts is calling for the government to implement policies that restore 30% of the land for nature by 2030, and establish a new planning designation - Wildbelt - to protect land where nature recovery is happening.

“Restoring nature, at scale, is hugely urgent to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. We need to see nature becoming an integral part of community and city planning in order to boost both the carbon storage and natural resilience of communities to more extreme weather, including extreme heat and flooding,” she says.

‘There is no going back. No matter what we do now, it’s too late to avoid climate change and the poorest, the most vulnerable, those with the least security, are now certain to suffer.’

— David Attenborough

This urgency was underlined by natural historian and broadcaster David Attenborough who, in his address to the UN earlier this year, said: “There is no going back. No matter what we do now, it’s too late to avoid climate change and the poorest, the most vulnerable, those with the least security, are now certain to suffer.

“If we bring emissions down with sufficient vigour, we may yet avoid the tipping points that will make runaway climate change unstoppable. In November this year, at COP26 in Glasgow, we may have our last opportunity to make the necessary step-change.”

More finances need to be made available to poorer and more remote communities to enable them to tackle climate change and protect infrastructure. In Glasgow at the COP26 in November, the world’s wealthiest countries will have the opportunity to do just that. Whether they choose to do so, or not, could be a crucial turning point in the fight to get climate change under control.

The debris in an area affected by floods, following heavy rainfalls, in Pepinster, Belgium, 2021. (Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo /Yves Herman).

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