Future Challenges | WSP on climate change and adaptability

There are opportunities as well as challenges in readying infrastructure to cope with climate change.

Designing infrastructure to ensure that it remains resilient in the face of climate change is becoming more urgent – but effective adaptation involves more than just making it tougher or bigger. 

There is increasing awareness that designs must take account of broader issues in society and the ecosystem to achieve long term success. 

Vulnerable to climate change

At least 3.3bn people live in situations that are highly vulnerable to climate change, according to the latest report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It points to hazards from heatwaves, storms, drought and flooding as well as slow onset changes, including sea level rise. 

“To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,” say the authors. So far, progress on adaptation is uneven and there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks.” 

Climate-resilient development – the process of implementing greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation measures to support sustainable development – is already challenging at even current warming levels, the IPCC warns. 

“The timing of the report is really crucial, because we need to act now,” says WSP UK head of industry Claire Gott. “If we don’t make use of this window of opportunity to cut emissions and to invest in adaptation strategies then, quite simply, there won’t be a liveable and sustainable future.” 

The challenge we face is the perception that future-ready design costs more

One of the keys to adaptation and resilience is to look at whole life costs that go beyond maintaining the infrastructure itself, she says. 

“The challenge we face is the perception that future-ready design costs more,” Gott explains. “If you put net zero solutions at the heart of major projects, and similarly for adaptation and resilience strategies, you actually tend to reduce costs.”

The key is to take account of the financial implications of a failure to address impacts such as flooding, droughts, fires or a lack of power, says Gott. 

This involves considering the value of investing in resilience – the value not just to investors, but to society and the economy. She points to how a WSP team linked the cost of more frequent flooding in Looe, Cornwall with the deterrent effect it is having on investment. 

The resulting longer term solutions being considered go beyond dealing with the practicalities of flood risk by also offering a catalyst for regeneration. Proposals include designing the breakwater to provide more berths for fishing and leisure boats. 

Bigger picture

“You need to understand the full context of the business case, rather than just looking at the single solution in front of you,” she says.

The IPCC warns that actions that focus on sectors and risks in isolation and which focus on short term gains often lead to problems. 

It is important to keep an open mind in looking at the options to help clients see the bigger picture, says Gott. “Our future-ready approach considers all aspects – ‘megatrends’ as we call them – and the broader context of some of these challenges.” 

Megatrends include issues that span climate, technology, resources and society. 

Globally, population change in low lying cities and settlements will lead to a projected 1bn people being at risk from coastal-specific climate hazards in the mid-term. 

“Within the sectors I operate in, resilience is more about demand,” says Gott. She leads a 100-strong team working across three sectors: pharmaceuticals, life sciences and biotech; gas networks, hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage; and chemicals. 

We need to shift our mindset to explore how major projects can be part of the carbon solution

Facilities such as vaccine production laboratories have to be flexible to accommodate a boost in output or changes in the process. 

Such flexibility could be relevant to other types of project. 

“We’ve all seen the rapid adaptation of the pharma sector during Covid,” she says. WSP’s involvement included leading the design of the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in Royal Leamington Spa. 

“We deployed an ultra-fast-track project management approach that transformed an existing industrial building of 20,000m² into a state-of-the-art, ultra-high-throughput lab,” she says. The structure of a building typically accounts for about 60% to 70% of its embodied carbon, she points out. So retrofitting should be a major pillar of the infrastructure industry’s response to the climate crisis. “If you can do it for a clean lab environment, you can do it anywhere,” she adds. 

Ending design marathon

The project also turned the traditional “marathon” approach to design into a “sprint”. “Everyone involved knew they were doing something really transformative in terms of making a difference to society, but also doing it in a way that was really making differences to the industry as well,” explains Gott.

Gott also sits on the board of the Major Projects Association and chaired a roundtable during COP26 in Glasgow, addressing some of the most challenging topics to inform a position statement for  the government. 

“The key trend from the roundtable was that we need to shift our mindset to explore how major projects can be part of the carbon solution, rather than adding to the climate change problem,” she says. This includes adopting digital techniques and offsite construction together with greater private sector collaboration. 

Being part of the solution is something WSP is dedicated to. It has committed to halving the carbon footprint of all designs and advice provided to clients by 2030. 

Collaborative working charters

At project level, collaborative working charters have proved successful in drawing together priorities, including sustainability and the shift towards adaptation and resilience.

Comprehensive, effective and innovative responses can harness synergies and reduce trade-offs between adaptation and mitigation to advance sustainable development, the IPCC found. 

“We need to decarbonise, but we also need to continue to design and construct the infrastructure that we need for the future,” says Gott. “I don’t think we can look at either in isolation. The IPCC really gives credence to that and makes it clear.” 

  • Published in association with WSP

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