Urgent need for climate adaptation in transport, say experts

25 April 2019

Climate change impacts pose huge risks to transportation, threatening global trade and development. Now is the time to adapt.

Hundreds of lives lost. More than 8,000 people stuck overnight in a flooded airport in Japan in the wake of a typhoon in 2018.

Nearly 800% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Dutch island of St. Maarten (and 600% of the GDP of the French half, St. Martin) wiped out during the 2017 hurricane season, which devastated many Caribbean island economies, with over $5.4 billion in losses reported in Anguilla, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, and Turks and Caicos Islands alone.

Transportation industry stakeholders across sectors and technical experts from academia and international organizations examined these impacts of extreme weather events and how to better adapt to a changing climate at an UNCTAD  meeting on "Climate Change Adaptation for International Transport: Preparing for the Future" held in Geneva, Switzerland, on 16 and 17 April.

"When it comes to climate change, transport is not just a culprit, but also a victim," said UNCTAD's chief of transport policy and legislation, Regina Asariotis.

Though the transport sector is a contributor to climate emissions, it also faces severe risks resulting from impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise, soaring temperatures, extreme storms and floods.

We are suffering more extreme weather events as a result of climate change, warns the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report, which calls for accurate climate information to support strategies for adaptation and mitigation.

The IPCC's call is also reflected in the Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2018 by the World Meteorological Organization, as highlighted by Boram Lee, a senior scientific officer at the organization. 

The World Economic Forum's 2019 global risks report identifies extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and natural disasters as the top three economic risks.

Growing risks for transportation

The risks to transportation, especially coastal transport infrastructure, threaten global trade and development.

International maritime transport carries over 80% of the volume of world trade and provides access to global markets for all countries, including those that are landlocked.

"Coastal risk is becoming one of the most threatening natural hazards, especially in low-income countries," said Michalis Vousdoukas, an expert from the European Commission Joint Research Centre, while presenting latest global projections on climate risks and multi-hazard exposure of transport infrastructure assets.

Damage, disruption and delays that may be caused by extreme weather events and climate change pose a huge economic risk to closely interlinked global supply chains, with significant repercussions for trade and development.

For small island developing states (SIDS), which are already exposed to major natural hazards, the outlook is particularly alarming.

Their critical reliance on coastal transport infrastructure, in particular seaports and airports, worsens their susceptibility to climate change impacts such as sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

For SIDS, these impacts threaten trade and disaster relief efforts, as well as international tourism, their crown jewel of economic development, which requires secure and reliable international transport connections.

"Transport is critical to 'sun, sea and sand' tourism, which accounts for up to 70% of the GDP of countries in the Caribbean," said Ms. Asariotis. "The potential for losses caused by climate change is huge."

Yet SIDS and other developing countries have limited capacity to adapt and build the resilience of their transport infrastructure to cope with climate change.

"Strategies for reducing vulnerabilities, enhancing resilience, and improving economic efficiency are necessary for sustaining economic and social gains," said Willard Phillips, economic affairs officer at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

He welcomed UNCTAD's recent technical cooperation work in the Caribbean and called for further climate-risk assessment for ports and airports across the region.

To prepare for the future, there is a need to build in domestic and regional redundancy in transportation for the Caribbean region, Mr. Phillips said.

Act now on climate adaptation

Sustainable and resilient transport is a cross-cutting issue under the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the international community in 2015. It is key to the achievement of progress on several goals.

But much international debate and action in relation to climate change and international transport has focused on addressing the causes (mitigation) rather than coping with the impacts (adaptation).

"We must examine the two sides of the coin - both the effects of transport on the environment and the impacts of climate change on transport," Ms Asariotis said.

The unrelenting assault of climate change requires countries to develop strategies for resilient transport infrastructure and systems, various speakers at the meeting said.

"Climate change will continue having devastating effects. The benefits of acting now far outweigh the costs of inaction," said Walters Tubua, associate programme officer at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Holistic approach urged

Experts at the meeting emphasized the need for an integrated approach when working on climate adaptation and resilience building for transportation across global supply chains.

"Transport underpins trade and society. It should be considered as a system," said Carole Escolan, manager of sustainable development at the International Union of Railways.

Adaptation actions should become part of normal business in the transportation sector rather than special projects or process, Ms. Escolan said.

"In order to facilitate climate change adaptation, we need to work as supply chains rather than transport modes," said Michael Woods, principal operations specialist at the Rail Safety and Standards Board in the United Kingdom.

Climate change will create significant challenges related to finance, insurance and regulations, especially for the aviation sector, said John Lengel, who leads the Airports Council International's adaptation work.

All stakeholders must work together

"Solutions can only be found by all stakeholders working together," said Mr. Lengel, underscoring the need to be more proactive in incorporating adaptation into the management and expansion of transport infrastructure.

Exchanging knowledge and experiences on building the resilience of transport infrastructure or systems and setting up common methods for measuring success are essential, said Patrick Mallejacq, secretary-general of the World Road Association.

Data will be key in this process. The establishment of databases on all transport assets, land use, the regional economy, weather and climate change should be a priority in every country, said Susanna Zammataro, director-general of the International Road Federation.

"There is a need for adaptive policy-making, high-quality asset data, capacity-building, and incentives for the private sector to invest in adaptation," Ms. Zammataro said.

She also urged the creation of an open-access global transport infrastructure database of adaptation-oriented policies, measures and projects.

Equally important are capacity-building programmes for transport infrastructure practitioners to enable long-term resilience planning, said Austin Becker, associate professor at the University of Rhode Island in the United States.

One such effort is the UNCTAD SIDSport-ClimateAdapt project that is strengthening the capacity of Caribbean SIDS to take appropriate adaptation response measures.

Some of the project's substantive findings informed the IPCC assessment of climate change impacts at 1.5 degrees global warming, highlighting the risk of marine flooding to coastal transport infrastructure in SIDS, which could occur as early as the 2030s.

Other experts emphasized the need for long-term investment in human resources and skills through academic education and training, including at the United Nations University.

Benefits outweigh initial costs

"Despite the potential high initial costs of adaptation measures, their benefits often outweigh the costs, as several studies have found," Ms. Zammataro said.

The above recommendations and others made by experts at the meeting are expected to inform discussions at the UN Secretary-General's Climate Action Summit scheduled for 23 September at the UN headquarters in New York.