Infrastructure and climate change

What impacts could climate change have on existing infrastructure?

Experts have warned of infrastructure destruction including by flooding and erosion.

The former Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency reported that a sea level rise of 1.1 metres presents risks to between 27,000 and 35,000 km of roads and rail, with a value of between $51 and $67 billion (2008 replacement value).

It makes simple financial senses for Australia to do its share of climate action to seek to avoid or limit these kinds of losses.

The CSIRO has said:

The risks to infrastructure include the failure of urban drainage and sewerage systems, more blackouts, transport disruption, and greater building damage. Higher temperatures, altered groundwater and soil conditions, sea-level rise and changed rainfall regimes may also lead to accelerated degradation of materials.

In particular, we can expect more heatwaves as a result of climate change, and we can expect these heatwaves to be more extreme. These will have impacts on infrastructure, as well as on human health and welfare.


Is climate change already having expensive and disruptive impacts on infrastructure?


The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (a consortium of a number of Australia universities) produced a detailed report on the 2009 heatwave in Melbourne and Adelaide. The report noted that financial losses were estimated at $800 million – mainly as a consequence of power outages, transport service disruptions and response costs.

The report noted that both Melbourne and Adelaide

experienced costly service interruptions resulting from failures in the heat sensitive components of power and transport infrastructure and systems, with electricity and train systems being the most severely impacted.

For power:

The city’s electricity sector stands out as being the most vulnerable to heat, with the transmission (due to faults with transformers) and distribution systems particularly being affected by the extreme event of January–February 2009. In Melbourne, the sector was under severe stress and in a state of near-collapse. … In Melbourne on the evening of 30 January, more than 500,000 residents were without power and the system was extremely vulnerable to further and potentially system-wide failure.

Power failures during a heatwave like this are not just inconvenient and unpleasant: they were found to have contributed to the higher rates of deaths and heat-related illness experienced in 2009.

The report said that for power systems

Capital programs must factor in the cost of adaptation to climate change and the prospect of more frequent and intense heatwaves. This is even more imperative given the extraordinarily high economic, social and health impacts of widespread power disruptions caused by and combined with extreme heat events.

As well as other problems like power failures, train services were vulnerable to physical impacts such as tracks buckling in the heat. The report cover shows the remarkable sight of workers spraying water on rail tracks in an effort to reduce this effect. The same thing was seen in the January 2014 heatwave.

What impacts could rising sea levels have on transport infrastructure in Australia?

Rising sea levels due to global warming could have catastrophic impacts on transport systems.

The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency reported threats from sea level rise of 1.1 metres as follows

  • Nationally, between 26,000 and 33,000 km of roads are potentially at risk
  • Nationally, between 1,200 and 1,500 km of rail lines and tramways are potentially at risk

Road and rail infrastructure under threat includes links to important ports (for example Port Hedland, Wollongong and Newcastle), urban areas (for example Port Adelaide and Melbourne) and regional and interstate links.

As has been reported in the press, OzCoasts maps for 1.1 metre sea level rise show extensive inundation affecting the main Sydney – Brisbane railway (as well as the route to the Port of Newcastle).

They also show some inundation affecting the Sydney – Brisbane expressway, for example around Raymond Terrace as well as Hexham.

A number of airports – regional and capital city – are also vulnerable.

Which airports are most threatened by sea level rise?

One particularly dramatic aspect of the impact on Australia from unchecked greenhouse gas emissions can be seen by checking Australia’s airports against OzCoasts maps (where available) for the impacts of sea level rises driven by climate change.

The potential economic impacts we are looking at here dwarf any impacts that even the irresponsible and disgraceful Greg Hunt could claim about carbon pricing.

  • At Sydney, OzCoasts maps for 1.1 metres sea level rise show impacts on one end of the main runway and the required run-off area. These impacts are just avoided if sea level rise can be kept to the lower amounts of sea level rise mapped. That would take urgent action now – including Australia resuming a positive international role instead of trying to organise coalitions against climate action.
  • At Brisbane, the runway is shown on OzCoasts map for 1.1 metre sea level rise as just above water, but surrounded. (The small airport in Brisbane’s north at Redcliffe shows as inundated.)
  • At Adelaide, OzCoasts map for 1.1 metre sea level rise indicates the runway would still be just above water but areas of the airport would have operational, on-water issues.

OzCoasts maps are not available for some areas of Australia. But there is enough information to tell us that we do need other airports to be mapped properly and publicly for impacts of sea level rise:

  • For Hobart, OzCoasts maps aren’t available. But the middle of the main runway is between 2 and 3 metres above current average sea levels. That’s the height which OzCoasts tells us can’t afford much sea level rise at all.
  • One end of the airport at Lord Howe Island, some of the runway at Rottnest Island airport and some of the runway at Merimbula airport, is less than one metre above current average sea level.
  • Regional airports where the main runway includes sections between 2 and 3 metres above current average sea level or even lower, include Cairns, Mackay, Sunshine Coast Airport, Ballina, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, and Taree
  • Gold Coast Airport, Townsville, Great Barrier Reef Airport Hamilton Island, Karumba, Moruya Airport on the NSW South Coast, and Onslow Airport up in the north west, appear just marginally higher, with sections between 3 and 4 metres above current average sea level. (OzCoasts maps cover the South East Queensland coast down to Coolangatta, but the southern half of the Gold Coast Airport runway is marked “no data”.)
  • Bankstown Airport’s main runway has sections between 4 and 5 metres above current average sea level. That doesn’t look far at all above the adjacent, tidal, Georges River.
  • Taree Airport is a little higher with the lowest section around 5 metres above current average sea level. But that’s not far above the adjacent, tidal, Manning River.

Whyalla Airport, at 10 metres, is (like the town) in no danger of being wiped off the map by carbon pricing. It is also safer than many regional airports from sea level rise.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation  has called on all members to take serious measures on climate change. Australia has been a member of ICAO from the outset in 1944 and has particular responsibilities as a member of the ICAO council. Mapping potential impacts and planning for those impacts would seem to be the bare minimum required.

Threats to airports from rising sea levels are also being recognised overseas.

What roles could there be for infrastructure policy and investment on climate change?

We need to be planning now for some amount of climate change, as well as working to keep that amount as small as we can.

Experts have pointed to needs for improved building regulation. There could also be roles for the Commonwealth and other levels of government in areas including

  • Continued reform of the National Electricity Market (to support access to renewable energy for households and businesses), and infrastructure measures to support this (for example to support export of renewable energy by States with surpluses)
  • Improved transport infrastructure to support moves to more efficient passenger and freight movement
  • More resilient energy and public transport infrastructure to deal with heatwave conditions
  • Protection of coastal communities against storm surges
  • Improved information to support planning and action by communities, individuals and industries (and to offset moves in the opposite direction by some State governments).
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