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Climate change: port climate risk and adaptation

At the Climate Action Summit in New York earlier this week the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, praised the shipping industry's response to the race against the climate crisis. Best described as "cautious yet upbeat message", he believes it was a "huge step up".

While there was a call to “ramp up actions and ambition”, change does not happen overnight. Ahead of Global Dredging Forum, we were considering the impact of climate change on ports. How vulnerable are ports to future climate change?

We spoke with Greg Fisk, Director of the Environment Partnership at BMT (a global marine science and technology consultancy firm) to better understanding the vulnerability of the port to future climate change.

With over 20 years of experience in climate change planning and adaptation studies across both public and private sector organisations, we asked Mr. Fisk about the challenges to ports and the maritime industry, risk and vulnerability assessments, and the balance between adaption and mitigation with regards to climate change impacts.

Knect365 Maritime: In your experience, how have attitudes towards Climate Variability and Climate Change changed in the last 10 years?

Greg Fisk: It depends on where you are in the world, but I think concern about climate related change and extreme weather events has been gaining momentum.

I think there was then a period where the concern was hijacked by a notion that the greater implications of adaptation were worse than climate change itself. We saw politicians around the world saying that it is not an issue, it's just natural variability and we should just should not worry about it.

But it has really changed again, in the last two-to-three years, where there has been a spate of extreme weather events. It’s also all-over mainstream news and we are seeing so much more activism around the issue, including individual and political action, and from societies and movements all over the world.

The policy landscape is also complex - with the setting of emission targets and carbon reduction under the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC) - but it’s important to remember that within the climate space there are two fields of practice.

One aspect of the field is seeking to understand, and reduce, the carbon emissions around the world to prevent further warming (colloquially this is called climate change mitigation). Whereas the other aspect of the field is around accepting there will be increasing impacts and working to build resilience and adapt to these changes.   BMT as a multidisciplinary, international management consultancy is embedded in this resilience and adaptation field, helping our clients to understand and adapt to what are increasingly looking like inevitable climate risks.

Knect365 Maritime: What are the challenges to ports and the maritime industry?

Greg Fisk: Seaports are in the crosshairs of most of your coastal climate change impacts.

When you are talking about the coastal dimension of climate change, you are talking about extreme weather events like cyclones and hurricanes, storm tides, erosion, high winds, and generally in more intense storms.

Ports are at the forefront of that coastal effect as they are both exposed and sensitive by virtue of their location, and they have an operability mandate – meaning that they need to operate for people to import and export goods. They can’t afford to have much (if any) downtime, and they are reliant on the logistics chain getting to the port (roads, rail, etc.) in order to distribute goods.

But where to start? The first step in looking at the issue is some form of assessment from a vulnerability perspective, moving towards what resilience actions can they take and what sort of adaptation measures are allowed.

For example, here there are three things to look at.

Firstly, ports can look to reduce physical damage to their assets from storms etc. through design measures and armouring.

Secondly, they can look to protect workforces. As ports generally have 24-hour operations, there may be times when the workforce cannot do their jobs (for instance because of extreme heat), and this can influence the safety and productivity of workers.

The final thing that needs to be looked at is operability within specific circumstances. For example, if there are high winds, you may not be able to operate gantry cranes at the port. Likewise, if your wharf levels are affected by higher water levels you may have difficulty loading and unloading the ship.

These are some practical issues that ports are going to have to have to deal with, and I think the challenge at the moment is that it only a small number of ports around the world are on the front foot of understanding their vulnerability.

That’s not to say that there are not lots of people thinking about it, but there are probably only a small number of ports that have done a really thorough assessment and - taken that next step, and started to look at an adaptation strategy, that covers the effects of climate change on their operations.

Knect365 Maritime: What factors would be important to making a risk and vulnerability assessment of a seaport?

Greg Fisk: There are probably two overarching factors in the context of the work we do with ports, and other entities, with regards climate risk related studies.

The first one is understanding vulnerability. We advocate a first, second, and third pass approach.

The first pass is sort of high-level and qualitative. We examine how the climate is changing in the local area in terms of temperature, moisture, sea level rise and storminess.

The second pass assessment looks at how these factors could affect assets, operations and workforces. This pass examines the current situation in more detail and is a mix of qualitative and semi-quantitative analysis, and generally involves an ISO-31000 risk assessment.

Within the second pass you will need to have insight into the spatial extent and the timing of risk. You would have a current profile of risk around the number of storms you have per year, the extent of storm tide, flooding, and erosion. Part of the study is also forecasting through scenario show that might change with increased storms, sea level rise, and so on.

With that, you start to map those hazard areas over the relevant areas of the coast where the port is situated.

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This more site based assessment is important as it gives you an idea of the risks to existing infrastructure as well as being able to estimate or at least postulate changes to the business such as how much additional maintenance dredging you would have to do because more storms will bring more material into your channels and it will need to be cleared.

So, in this second pass you are building a bigger and better picture - both spatially and temporally –about what your risk profile is.

The third pass assessment is around more detailed numerical modelling your risk profile. BMT has a suite of numerical modelling software and approaches that we use to help clients to build a risk model of their port. With the models we can look at different scenarios and simulations to examine the probability of specific things happening and more importantly, the consequences.

To assess the consequences of climate risk, we work closely with the asset managers, planners and engineers at the port. We look to understand, if a particular climate event or effect happens, what would be the impact on infrastructure and operations. On most occasions, the science can only take you so far, but you must get those specialists in to help understand the implications on the assets and on the business as a whole.

These studies tend to be done while working in close partnership with the client.

At this point in a study, an organization will begin to feel that they have a much better grip on what's going to affect them, what's not going to affect them, and what are they going to do about it.

The trick of course is that all these resilience and adaptation measures cost time and money and you can’t realistically do everything at once, so you need to have some triggers for when you are going to do things.

Knect365 Maritime: Is the solution to the effect of Climate Change on ports not simply to build seawalls, create elevation, or port relocation?

Greg Fisk: As port assets generally have been in place for a long time and have national economic importance, I think one would always look at engineered solutions to defend existing infrastructure rather than pick-up and move ports.

However, climate risk should definitely come into consideration if a port is expanding or designing new infrastructure.

In this context, one of the challenges which organisations face is the engineering design standard which they are going to adhere to. Say a port has a levee bund to prevent flooding, and we know that levee bund is not going to be high enough, and we will start to see more overtopping by 2060. The question is, what standard should we design it to? Should it be a 1 in 500-year event? A one in a 1 000-year event?

There aren’t recognised international standards for climate change out there as yet so in many cases this comes back to risk tolerance and best practice engineering advice.

The second issue is that while we can do a lot of simulation and we can get a pretty good idea of when impacts are going to happen, it is still exceedingly difficult to raise capital. In a perfect world, you would seek to design all infrastructure to be climate proof for the next 100 years but it is unlikely a port can get or generate funding to do that, so they must look at this as an incremental approach with triggers over time.

By the same token they don’t want to have a situation where the only time they do anything is following a disaster. The costs of remediation and reinstatement of infrastructure (as well as downtime of operations) can be crippling and financial support from Governments and insurance brokers is likely to wane as more and more extreme weather events are experienced.

So, acknowledging these issues around funding, timing, and what standards are available, I think the solution for many organisations will be in engineering and protection - but there is still some complexity to it.

Knect365 Maritime: With a diverse set of socio-economic factors, implementing change at the seaport level must be difficult. Is there a balance between adaption and mitigation that needs to be struck?

Greg Fisk: There is, and an organization, ideally, needs to be looking at both.

I think climate change adaptation has been a poor cousin to climate change mitigation for the last 15-20 years, but that is starting to change and there really are some broad drivers now to understanding risk and adaptation.

Within the private sector, there is the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

Brought out in Guidelines published by the financial sector, the TCFD encourages companies to disclose their climate risk as a part of their financial statements.

With many public and private shareholders, Ports would definitely be an industry sector that needs to understand their risks, so that they can actually disclose the financial implications of their climate risk to their shareholders.

The TCFD is significant as it moves climate adaptation from being a sustainability issue (often sitting within an environment portfolio within a port), to becoming a C-Suite risk issue that the CFO is going to be concerned about.

And that really is where it needs to be. It's crosscutting across the organization. It’s influencing planning, engineering, operations, water usage, and energy usage, to name a few.

As such, it needs to sit at a high enough level and have leadership-level endorsement to be effective.

And that's the real evolution of the issue -with the narrative changing from what we are doing to the environment – in terms of carbon emissions - to what is the environment going to do to us (in terms of climate impacts).

 

A colleague of Mr. Fisk, Louise Ledgard (Director of Business Development, Critical Infrastructure at BMT Global), will be presenting case examples and guidance covering a framework for port climate risk and adaptation at Global Dredging Forum.

Book now to hear first-hand experiences on major port expansion, greenfield projects, and how to meet the needs of larger vessels, and increased volumes of traffic.

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