Engineers sound alarm about climate change and infrastructure

Hard hats. Photo by: rawpixel

KATOWICE, Poland — Officials in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, are faced with a fairly straightforward decision: whether to repair an aging bridge, or replace it.

From an engineer’s perspective, that decision usually comes down to a basic calculus: What would it take to repair the bridge to a condition in which its capacity — plus an additional safety factor — is greater than the load it will have to bear?

But as the impacts of climate change grow more severe, that calculation is getting more complicated. Extreme weather events that were previously rare or infrequent are now more likely in many parts of the world. In engineering terms, that means the load that infrastructure has to bear is increasing, and that the margin of safety built into a construction process isn’t the same as it used to be.

In Guanacaste province, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations is working with Germany’s development agency — Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit — on a pilot project to assess the vulnerabilities to infrastructure posed by a changing climate regime.

They are finding that incremental change in climate over a period of time can push infrastructure over a threshold that creates the potential for damage — or outright failure — to occur.

“This is a really important concept that links climate science and engineering together,” said David Lapp, secretary of WFEO’s Committee on Engineering and the Environment.

“In a shifting climate, the chances of exceeding that threshold become much higher. What we need to understand is — how much higher? How often is that going to happen over the lifecycle of the infrastructure?” he said.

With that information in hand, planners and engineers can then work to reduce the risk of infrastructure failure to a level deemed acceptable by its users.

There are currently trillions of dollars worth of existing infrastructure that was designed and built using climate criteria based on a relatively benign period, and the vulnerabilities embedded in that infrastructure need to be identified and addressed. Countries and subnational jurisdictions such as cities and provinces are tasked with creating National Adaptation Plans — as well as nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement — that outline their adaptation and climate-smart development strategies.

Some countries are hoping to access financing through the Green Climate Fund, but that institution requires that they describe a clear theory of change for how they are going to move from where they are today to a more climate-resilient future. In order to do that, many countries will require technical assistance and capacity building to enable them to compare their current and planned infrastructural needs with the climate stressors those projects will have to consider.

Establishing that kind of baseline information is not always easy.

“For a developing country like Mali, that wasn’t in place,” said Lassina Coulibaly, a Malian official who coordinates engagement with the GCF.

Mali is working through its Paris Agreement commitments and its national adaptation planning process, and with organizations that are already working on climate adaptation on the ground to start collecting the data that might inform an assessment of the country’s structural vulnerability to climate change, Coulibaly said.

On a hopeful note, according to some reports, 75 percent of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 does not exist today. That opportunity to start fresh also presents an opportunity to factor climate change into the calculus of what to build, and how to build it.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.