Climate change: embracing the tides of change

ARRB Senior Economist Caroline Evans talks about the impact of climate change on road and transport infrastructure, and some of the challenges Australia faces in this space.July 2016 was the hottest month since records began, according to NASA.

While the US aeronautics and space administration made that claim late last year, increases in temperature have and are being felt, particularly in Australia’s east.

As reported by the ABC, Friday 13 January was the hottest Sydney night in January since weather records for the area began in 1858. More sweltering days were felt this past February. Ivanhoe in New South Wales reached a whopping 47.6 degrees Celsius on 13 February, just short of the state record of 49.6 degrees Celsius set in 1939.

The spike in temperatures could be seen as a stark warning that climate change is happening. Globally, it is topic frequently addressed in the political realm.

The change in environment affects many different aspects of everyday life, including road and transport infrastructure, which provides numerous challenges to the respective decision makers, asset managers, stakeholders and road users.

How, for instance, do we build, maintain and manage road infrastructure assets that may be susceptible to an increase in environmental impacts such as floods, bushfires and above-average temperatures?

Caroline Evans, Senior Economist at the Australian Road Research Board, is well placed to talk about the topic. Her curriculum vitae, which includes a total of 15 years in the transport industry; – 11 years at her current role, a graduate role at the Victorian Department of Infrastructure, a period with the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) and experience working internationally with German Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt), the World Road Association (PIARC) and other international bodies.

“I’ve been really lucky in that I knew where I wanted to go in my career and knew my areas of interest, which was the environment and connecting that with economies of scale,” says Ms. Evans.

During her time at the Victorian Department of Infrastructure, Ms. Evans put together a value system for practical use in the environmental space, which took into account the different environmental impacts in project appraisal and evaluation, helping to provide a lot more data on the subject within the state.

She went on to work at BITRE where she was involved in developing a series of national guidelines for transport system management in Australia. Those experiences culminated comfortably in her current role, where she’s been involved in climate change and resilience initiatives both at home and abroad.

“At the Australian Road Research Board I’ve been involved in various climate change committees, which look at climate change mitigation, how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and working with the likes of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and BITRE.”

She was also involved in the Australian Low Carbon Transport Forum 2012, which looked at the effects of climate change across all transport modes. “There were 47 different abatement options at the forum looking at how to achieve a maximum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through regenerative braking, car pooling, electric vehicles and more,” she says. “That was something that had never been done before – bringing together state, national, local governments and industry to talk about all these areas using a consistent methodology for assessment.”

The conversation around climate change and its impact on infrastructure has grown over the past few decades. As part of her role at the Australian Road Research Board, Ms. Evans has been in a central position to many of these conversations, especially as she has been working with BASt in Germany as part of a research exchange program.

While abroad, she worked with the Conference of European Directors of Roads (CEDR) and the United Nations Economic Commission of Europe (UNECE). She also where worked on a range of Forum of European National Highway Research Laboratories (FEHRL) initiatives and Horizon 2020 Consortiums, including the FEHRL “Forever Open Roads” initiative.

FEHRL’s flagship program envisages future roads that will be open 24/7, 365 days a year. Three different elements comprise it:

The adaptable road focuses on ways to allow road operators to respond in a flexible matter to changes in road user demands and constraints.

The automated road focuses on a fully integrated intelligent communication platform with the vehicle operators, traffic management services and road operations.

Finally, the resilient road looks at ensuring service levels are maintained under extreme weather conditions and man-made events. It considers using sustainable materials that can harness geothermal and solar energy and endure and adapt to extreme weather conditions.

The “Forever Open Roads” program presents some key ideas on climate change adaptation, particularly through its third point – resilience. “If roads aren’t being used due to natural and man-made events, then it defeats the purpose of their intended function. We change that by improving their resilience,” says Ms. Evans.

These globally recognised programs are in line with the Australian Road Research Board’s new vision of delivering connected and adaptable futures. Right now, part of the program is about exploring the different strategies and roadmaps on how to achieve “Forever Open Roads” and adopt effective climate change adaptability measures for these networks.

“There’s a lot of technology that you can consider but it needs to be tangible, and there are different tools and methodologies out there” she states. Looking at vulnerability and risk assessment tools, for instance, can help understand context before anything is actioned.

As Ms. Evans explains, there is a lot of work taking place internationally, from which providing key examples Australia can learn from. “Instead of undertaking an extensive literature reviews, we can jumpstart innovation and consider the applicability of the tools that already exist and look at what’s appropriate for Australia,” she says. “At the end of the day, the research needs to be tangible – it needs to be viable and applicable in terms of geography and to the sort of integration. From my perspective within the climate change discussion, adaptation should never be considered in isolation.”

She says there needs to be wider approval on what’s involved in the process, as adapting different climate change and mitigation processes may have wider benefits across other sectors and need to be made in the right context. “It’s all-encompassing and I think ‘resilience’ is certainly a buzz word internationally and it’s coming up here as well.”

There are many examples of “resilient infrastructure” in the space of climate change adaptation internationally.

Ms. Evans was part of a delegation to South Korea and Japan, looking at both nations’ infrastructure resilience measures, noting some interesting milestones while she was there. “A lot of what we saw in Japan was focused on early warning earthquake and flood mitigation systems.”

She says Japan has made significant achievements in this area following natural disasters – its resilience measures and infrastructure rates of recovery for these events have been well thought out.

An example of highlighting the rapid rate of recovery was observed when the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami events ravaged the island nation. When the earthquake hit all road routes were closed and the open rate was zero percent (closure of 2310 kilometres). Rescue control was at the scene immediately and 20 hours later, the open rate across the network was 34 per cent. The rapid urgent restoration 13 days later saw a network opening rate of 98 per cent.

Ms. Evans says intelligent transport systems in South Korea are being employed to warn motorists of hazards on the road in real-time, such as a container or box falling off a truck, via communication between infrastructure and vehicles, and help guide them on alternate routes accordingly. This kind of technology translates well to climate change adaptation strategies and “smart roads” for Australia.

Christian Axelsen, Research and Design Academic Specialist at the Danish Road Directorate, talked at the joint 38th Australasian Transportation Researchers’ Forum and 27th ARRB Conference in Melbourne last November about other frameworks being employed in Europe.

He talked about the CEDR task group and its focus on the applications and learnings involved in delivering climate change adaption strategies. He said how Europe is using certain templates for such strategies for infrastructure, and a key area to explore is the appropriateness of applying these models in an Australian context.

These strategies help encourage adaptation activities to become an integrated part of any national road administrator or state road body, from planning a road to operation and maintenance. Some highlighted concepts were as simple as creating a weather event database and recording information to show how climate change is affecting a road network over an extended period.

Mr. Axelsen said that adaption strategies include hard and soft infrastructure measures – hard being concepts such as alternative road surface treatments, intelligent transport systems and levees, while soft measures incorporate coastline restoration and designing waterfronts to accommodate changing water levels.

He also identified the numerous challenges involved in adapting such approaches, including political difficulties and even resource demand.

At the 27th ARRB Conference, Mr. Axelsen and Ms. Evans held a workshop to investigate the feasibility of developing a climate change adaptation strategy for roads and other sectors across all levels of government and to investigate the appropriateness of using European templates developed for Australia.

Ms. Evans says there is certainly scope to implement the kinds of strategies mentioned by Mr. Axelsen, as well as others set out by the likes of PIARC into an Australian context at national and localised regional levels. As an Australian member on the PIARC Adaptation and Resilience Technical Committee, Ms. Evans notes there is scope to further integrate vulnerability, risk and infrastructure criticality assessments of infrastructure and networks into Australia’s frameworks.

While the global community is rife with examples of climate change adaptability at its best, Ms. Evans asserts that Australia is at the forefront of developing new climate change adaptability measures.

“It’s not about seeing what’s happening in Europe and what we can apply here, it’s a two-way street of sharing knowledge,” she says. “There are some things we’re doing here that is of interest to the world.”

With the ninth largest road network in the world as well as a diverse climate, Ms. Evans says Australia’s environment has some unique challenges, but also opportunities. “Because of the extreme nature of our climate, it proves to be a great testing bed for climate change initiatives,” she explains. Australia’s heat waves, bushfires and flooding events (which can even occur within the same week), for instance, are key examples here.

“How we run our recovery programs and investment in infrastructure is of great interest internationally,” she says. “At the end of the day, the goal globally is to ensure the road network and infrastructure meets the needs of the road users and operators.” For this reason, the notion of “connectivity” and “adaptability” are a central part of thinking at the Australian Road Research Board nowadays.

Ms. Evans says that sharing those ideas and seeing opportunities for transferring that knowledge is significant in this space, particularly when that information comes under the ‘resilient’ banner.

“Resilience is the buzzword at the moment and the term is growing in emphasis here in Australia,” she explains. “Building something resilient doesn’t have to cost the earth, it could just be the implementation of more road side drainage and less costly measures. In Queensland, for instance, look at the Houghton Highway Bridge in Brisbane – a vital transport corridor. It’s a new bridge designed to withstand a one-in-2000 year flood, and it’s built with ITS technology capabilities and other multi-modal benefits too.”

Embracing resilience as a design and construction concept may seem straightforward, but Ms. Evans explains the major challenge in this space comes back to the issue of implementation.

“Some levels of government are at different stages of looking at resilience in infrastructure. Some are focusing on mitigation and ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while the likes of Main Roads Western Australian and Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads are doing lots of work in adaptability.”

Ms. Evans adds that the communities in areas of Queensland and New South Wales that have been hit by flooding events will have their own resilience measures in place.

“Resilience encompasses the ability for communities to adapt to climate change and be resilient as well. This could be having extra food in their cupboards or people being aware of evacuation routes.”

Ms. Evans also asserts that to effectively adopt a comprehensive and effective approach to resilience in infrastructure, both the short and long-term aspects of climate change need to be considered.

The short-term impacts are the direct implications of a changing environment – the physical influences on the existing network, such as road closures from flooding events, and how to deal with those at the time. The long-term influences from climate change revolve around the differences in temperature and the resulting movements in demographic – the indirect impacts on infrastructure.

Part of the challenge here is taking into account how increasing temperatures and other natural events may change where communities are based, thus raising the question of where more road and civil infrastructure may be needed in the future.

Increasing temperatures may also cause further cracking and potholes in pavements, which is another long-term effect of climate change. Ms. Evans says more information and data is needed to consider many of the short and long-term aspects of climate change and understand how they will impact Australia’s road and transport infrastructure in the future.

To address these varying degrees of infrastructure resilience across the country, Ms. Evans suggests that industry needs to be more aligned. She says the Australian Road Research Board sees collaboration and creating an environment to achieve this alignment part of its future. “We need to be connected when we talk about adaption measures – it requires a full approach to the likes of pavement rehabilitation or putting other safeguards in place.”

Ms. Evans remains positive that this kind of collaboration is happening here and globally, particularly with Australia represented on numerous international councils and bodies investigating resilience and climate change adaptation strategies for road and transport infrastructure. “The fact that we are already collaborating and creating interest here shows that we’ve got our finger on the pulse.”

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