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Adapting to climate change is about taking deliberate and considered actions to avoid, manage or reduce the consequences of a more extreme climate (warming of temperatures, more frequent flooding, rising of sea levels, increases in tropical storm and in hurricane intensities, migratory behaviour of wildlife species, etc...) and to take advantage of the opportunities that such changes may generate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as the "adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities" (IPCC, 2007).

Adaptation can take many different forms. It includes education and training about climate change; revising emergency planning responses for more severe extreme weather events; revised planning standards for more vulnerable areas and managing and assisting our natural assets to improve their resilience to climate change impacts. It may also require more technical and scientific solutions.

Adaptation to environmental change is not a new concept. Human societies have shown throughout history a strong capacity for adapting to different climates and environmental changes. For example, farmers, foresters, civil engineers and their supporting institutions have been forced to adapt to numerous challenges to overcome adversity or to remove important impediments to sustained productivity.

Adaptation is a necessary complement to mitigation in addressing climate change. Mitigation is necessary to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change, while adaptation is essential to reduce the damages from climate change that cannot be avoided.

Despite considerable work examining climate change impacts and adaptation over the past two decades, relatively little attention has been given to built infrastructure and engineered systems, including transportation. Rather, much of the work on transportation and climate change has been directed toward mitigation issues. This is not surprising, considering that transportation accounts for a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change will have significant impacts on transportation, affecting the way transportation professionals plan, design, construct, operate and maintain infrastructure. Decisions taken today, particularly those related to the redesign and retrofitting of existing, or the location and design of new, transportation infrastructure, will affect how well the system adapts to climate change far into the future. As climate changes induce new extremes, operational transportation responses are likely to become more routine and proactive than today's approach of treating severe weather consequences on an emergency basis.

On the basis of current knowledge, climate scientists have identified climate change scenarios of particular importance to transportation and estimated the probability of their occurrence during the 21st century. Potential impacts include more frequent or severe flooding, rail-track deformities, sea level rise and coastal flooding, inundation of roadways, increases in weather-related delays and traffic disruptions, erosion of road base and bridge supports, more debris on roads and rail lines and increases in road washout, etc...

Given the limited amount of work that has been completed, virtually all impact areas and adaptation strategies require further investigation.

Specific priorities may include:

  • increased research on the vulnerability of roads to changes in thermal conditions, including freeze-thaw cycles and extreme high temperatures;
  • studies that assess the significance of extreme weather events and weather variability in the design, cost, mobility and safety of transportation systems;
  • a more thorough evaluation of existing adaptive measures and their relative ability to defer infrastructure upgrades, reduce operational costs and maintain or improve mobility and safety;
  • an analysis of how changes in factors external to climate, such as technology, land-use patterns and economics, affect societal vulnerability to climate and climate change.

Design and Construction Standards and Practices
Weather sensitivities are reflected in design and construction standards and protocols. No matter what the form of infrastructure, new or existing, the transportation planning process has to consider the probable effects of climate change - and potentially build in more resilience to weather and climate. State and local governments as well as private infrastructure providers should incorporate climate change into their long-term capital improvement plans, facility designs, maintenance practices, operations and emergency response plans. Taking measures now to evaluate and protect the most vulnerable infrastructure should pay off by diminishing near-term maintenance expenditures and reducing the risk of catastrophic failure, with its associated toll on human life and economic activity.

Facilities particularly prone to the potential need for adaptation measures, such as ports, airports and private railroad and pipeline companies, should inventory critical transportation infrastructure in the light of climate change projections to determine whether, when, and where impacts in their regions might be consequential.

By way of example, adaptation measures that may be foreseen include:

  • Relocation of facilities and redesigning and/or retrofitting structures to ensure appropriate protection.
  • Increased attention to temperature variations as a factor in the selection of asphalt cements (and asphalt emulsions for surface-treated roads to maintain pavement integrity).
  • Adoption of special measures to help conserve fauna and flora, like protecting and enhancing migration corridors to allow species to migrate as climate changes.
  • Special attention to transport and road infrastructure systems that are inappropriate to the given topography (e.g. subject to damage by landslides, sea-level rise or flooding due to climate change).
  • Urban tree planting to moderate temperature increases (see, for example, the EPA Environment Protection Agency's Urban Heat Island tree planting programme.

Climate Change Services
From a climate change perspective, there is a need to help steer the development and implementation of information technologies so that mobility and safety benefits are maximised under future, as well as current, conditions.

Similarly, there is clearly a need for capacity building in the fields of response to incidents, risk assessment, maintenance development, renewal practice and design standards for new infrastructure.
Priority issues include:

  • Promoting shore protection techniques that do not destroy surrounding habitat.
  • Improving early warning systems and flood hazard mapping for storms.
  • Protecting key facilities against extreme weather events.

Transportation managers use advisory, control and treatment strategies to mitigate environmental impacts on roadways. Each of these requires detailed site-specific information, often in real time. Information on atmospheric and other physical conditions may be integrated with Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), such as automated traffic-control and traveller-advisory systems, to address transportation challenges. This information can include data on water levels, wind speed, early warning systems and flood hazard mapping for storms..., as well as safety-related messages.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) runs the Adaptation Learning Mechanism (ALM) which provides country case studies on adaptation. The project seeks to provide stakeholders with a common platform for sharing and learning. The ALM will also complement the wide range of adaptation knowledge networks and initiatives already underway.

An adaptation database has been created by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). This covers local adaptation measures to facilitate the transfer of coping strategies/mechanisms, knowledge and experience from communities that have had to adapt to specific hazards or climatic conditions.

For developing countries, a special adaptation programme has been designed. This is called the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA). Its purpose is to identify the urgent and immediate needs of a country to adapt to present threats from climate change. Addressing these needs proactively will expand the current coping range and enhance resilience - thereby promoting capacity to adapt not only to current climate variability and extremes, but also to future climate change challenges.

Economic Cost and Funding of Climate Change Adaptation
Transportation adaptation measures include activities that are taken before impacts are observed (anticipatory) and after impacts have been felt (reactive). In most circumstances, anticipatory adaptations will incur lower long-term costs and be more effective than reactive adaptations.

Although the costs of climate change damage in developed countries outweigh those in developing countries, the poorest populations of the latter are likely to be the hardest hit - despite their relatively small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries need special support interventions that increase resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change on vulnerable regions, sectors and communities. Such adverse impacts affect core development needs, including access to drinking water, food, education, basic materials, transport and public health. Adaptation in the transport sector is, therefore, an interdependent part of overall development and cannot be addressed in isolation.

The World Bank is working with a number of pilot countries on a multi-year project called the Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change study. This is designed to help developing country decision makers design more effective climate change adaptation strategies (View the presentation and study update that were presented on June 6th, 2009 during a side event to the Bonn Climate Change Talks).

Under a changed climate, the nature and range of adaptive measures would be likely to vary significantly, with costs increasing in some areas and decreasing in others. However, current literature suggests that the risks will be manageable, given appropriate forward planning.