Ethny Childs
May 2024

Designing infrastructure for climate resilience and extreme weather

At the most recent COP for the UNFCCC, COP28, the importance of climate resilience and adaptation was a key area of focus and discussion. In the face of increasing climate-related impacts and more frequent extreme weather events, ensuring that our infrastructure is fit for the future is imperative. This will require different approaches to new and existing infrastructure, with the latter needing to be retrofitted and/or managed differently, and new infrastructure being designed and maintained in a sustainable way in the context of both present and future needs and conditions.

A suite of new infrastructure will be needed to support the net zero transition, ranging from renewable energy infrastructure to new and expanded public transport systems. Considering climate resilience at the design stage of this infrastructure will be fundamental to ensuring its longevity given the changes in climate that may occur over its lifetime. Design life of infrastructure must take into account the need for sustainable use of resources and consider relevant uncertainties surrounding climate projections and risk, and ensure resilience is applicable to a range of possible future scenarios. There will also need to be a consideration of the role of additional supporting infrastructure necessary to adapt to climate change impacts, including hard defences like seawalls and nature-based solutions like wetlands. 

What is the role of environmental assessment professionals?

A range of expertise and stakeholders will be needed to ensure the delivery of climate resilient infrastructure, including Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) professionals who should play a key role in mainstreaming adaptation measures, working with construction professionals to support sustainable design, and helping support investment in more sustainable and resilient infrastructure. EIA professionals in particular could support decision-making at the project level by considering climate vulnerabilities of infrastructure and exploring whether infrastructure could add to climate risk elsewhere. A consistent and comprehensive consideration of climate risk within the EIA process will be an important aspect for supporting EIA professionals in working with design teams to develop more resilient infrastructure. 

The latest EIA Community event explored this topic in greater detail through a case study presentation by Lisa Constable on Network Rail’s approach to assessing climate and extreme weather impacts. This was followed by a workshop facilitated by Eleni Antoniades exploring what the world might look like in 2124 and the implications for EIA professionals and how they can support climate resilience. 

Catch up on the presentations

What does the future look like?

Discussion kicked off by exploring attendee views on key aspects of the environment (climate change, air quality, biodiversity, built environment, population, transport) and how pessimistic or optimistic the future looks in these areas. The group then went on to discuss what this means for EIA professionals, and how they can support resilience. 

How is the design life of infrastructure currently considered?

It was discussed that the design life of projects currently varies by the scale of the project in question, for example major infrastructure projects consider longer timescales and related climate risk. For smaller scale projects this is not always done so effectively and the design life can be more variable. 

Currently the EIA process is focused on looking at the impact of a project on the environment, rather than how the project itself will be impacted by the environment around it. When considering climate resilience and future scenarios, the latter of these considerations becomes more important and therefore requires a more strategic view. It was thought that it is increasingly likely that EIAs will start taking these wider views into account more and considering the wider spatial context of a project. In some areas this is already being done, for example in terms of ensuring infrastructure is resilient to changes in heat and flooding, but other areas with more variables, like biodiversity, are much harder to predict and model. 

How can EIAs support climate resilient infrastructure?

When considering climate resilience, EIAs could play a greater role in bringing together the different elements of an EIA into a coherent overview that can then be fed into design and construction. It was noted that climate resilience is a fast-evolving area and that understanding design life and the impact of climate change on assets themselves is becoming more straightforward. The difficulty however lies in bringing the different considerations like climate resilience, biodiversity, and air quality together, due to the different timescales that specialisms tend to consider and the uncertainty around how they might change and interact.

Coming up with assumptions in this area is therefore where a lot of the difficulties lie. This uncertainty also exists around societal change; infrastructure is designed for people to use, and it is therefore not just important to consider how the project might be impacted by the environment but also whether it will still be fit for purpose in terms of how people access and use the infrastructure. For example, you could design a bridge with a design life of 100 years and embed engineering solutions to make sure it would be climate resilient, however for the environmental assessment side this can be difficult – how do we create models based on what different elements of the environment will look like in 100 years? This leads to a high level of uncertainty in the assessments being made. One way of addressing this in EIAs is having a part of the report dedicated to uncertainty and outlining any assumptions made. This could protect against maladaptation and allow for some built-in flexibility in design.

To support this, further assessments and monitoring post-project consent and completion will be an important part of ensuring continued resilience to changing conditions and allow for maintenance activities that support longevity. Lessons could be learnt around the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) approach and the need for management plans that ensure BNG is delivered over the mandated 30-year period, which includes a level of monitoring and the ability to alter the management if needed in response to unforeseen or unrealised impacts. Alignment between the timescales of mitigation measures (like BNG) and the design life of projects could also be beneficial.

Next steps

The EIA Community will continue to explore how EIA professionals can feed into the design of projects and support environmental improvement through dedicated webinars, debates and publications. Our next event will be exploring Environmental Outcome Reports and what they mean for EIA professionals, and will pick up discussion on how these could support climate resilience of the built environment. 

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