Adapt to advance      17/11/2021 by Sarah Pursey


Emerging from the COP26 climate talks, a sense of hopelessness in the face of intensifying climate change and the havoc it will wreak in the years ahead may seem understandable. Given the grim expectations for average temperature rise in the decades ahead, ‘climate anxiety’ – as it is now often known – seems a pretty reasonable and healthy response to what is, for many citizens worldwide, already an existential threat – and for those lucky enough to witness the devastating climate-induced weather events of recent years through the window of their televisions or laptops, tantamount to a box-set of Hollywood disaster movies coming to life.

“The climate crisis is here, now: massive wildfires ravage fragile habitats, city taps run dry, droughts scorch the land and massive floods destroy people’s homes and livelihoods. So far, the response has been gravely insufficient”, laments the foreword of a report from the Global Commission on Adaptation. Led by 34 leaders in politics, business and science, the Commission calls for “a massive effort to adapt to conditions that are now inevitable”.


Like many other countries this year, China has experienced several extreme weather events and climate disasters. Coastal areas have been attacked by strong storm surges, including a binary typhoon – a rare phenomenon where two cyclones interact. And in July, an unprecedented rainstorm battered Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province – causing the deaths of around 300 people, destroying 52,800 houses and laying waste to 93,066 hectares of cropland. The direct economic loss from this disaster alone is thought to be around US$8 billion. Yet in tandem, the Asian powerhouse currently emits more greenhouse gases than any other country, and World Resource Institute’s research confirms that China must dramatically ramp up investment to adapt its infrastructure to climate impacts, in order to avoid huge future losses (p10).


Cost is naturally the major hurdle to overcome, and the latest UNEP Adaptation Gap Report highlights an urgent need to step up climate adaptation finance. Invariably, the world's poorest countries face the unfortunate and often devastating double whammy of being hardest hit by climate disasters while simultaneously having the least resources to mount an effective response. As a result, adaptation costs in developing countries are 5–10 times greater than current public adaptation finance flows – and that finance gap continues to widen. Pandemic recovery stimulus packages are also becoming a lost opportunity to finance climate adaptation, UNEP finds. Less than one-third of the 66 countries studied explicitly funded Covid-19 measures to address climate risks (up to June 2021). Meanwhile, the heightened cost of servicing debt, combined with decreased government revenues, may hamper future state spending on adaptation.


This is lamentable, given how early investment in climate adaptation would generate important dividends – including avoided losses, and offering many social, environmental and economic benefits. Indeed, the Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing US$1.8 trillion in climate adaptation globally could return US$7.1 trillion of net benefits between 2020 and 2030.

Such adaptation could take the form of defence against the encroaching elements (see Lagoon Hull, p6); it could also come from integrating grey infrastructure (i.e., man-made systems such as dams, levees, reservoirs, treatment facilities, and pipes) with green infrastructure (natural systems such as forests, floodplains, and soils). Beyond that, and already delivering enormous efficiency gains for the world of manufacturing, emergent Industry 4.0 tech will prove vital to optimising the world’s infrastructure. Harnessing a convergence of sensors, robotics, IoT, Big Data and AI will unlock previously unimaginable insights into our built environments – offering us a window to not just see, but also effectively monitor and respond swiftly to changes and challenges.


Given how the lion’s share of infrastructure set to be in place by 2050 does not yet exist, there’s a clear opportunity to rethink how the world builds out its transportation, water, power and communication systems and arteries. Climate mitigation will of course be crucial, yet effective adaptation progammes will be equally important, given the Herculean task ahead – and infrastructure, in all its forms, is undoubtedly the skeleton key for accessing such resilience-building reconfigurations.

Latest issue – Vol 4/21
Lead stories
– Infrastructure focus
– Climate credibility
– Future proofing the Humber – The UK's Lagoon Hull project 
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