Maritime infrastructure: navigating a changing climate

26 April 2016 (Last Updated April 26th, 2016 04:56)

The World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure (PIANC) has devised a new initiative dedicated to help the inland and maritime navigation infrastructure sector respond to climate change, marking a step-change in the sector’s efforts to plan for the future.

Maritime infrastructure: navigating a changing climate

Climate change

Launched at the Paris climate summit in December 2015, PIANC’s bold plans focuses on reducing greenhouse emissions in navigation infrastructure, or in other words, navigating a changing climate.

An array of international bodies, including the International Association of Ports and Harbours, and International Bulk Terminals Association, have joined the Think Climate coalition, of which the Navigating a Changing Climate: Towards Sustainable Waterborne Transport Infrastructure project is an integral part.

Still in its infancy, the project, which runs to 2020, is taking a measured approach, starting with the creation of a central network of information that can be used by owners and operators.

"A majority of associations are already doing something to do with climate change," explains Jan Brooke, head of Think Climate. "But they don’t have access to the wider network that was created when we set up the Think Climate coalition."

What Brooke and her colleagues are not attempting to fashion is a one-size fits all approach. Geographical and financial considerations will ensure that what works for one port may not necessarily have the same impact at another.

Instead, the project is broken down into a series of key themes: improving sector-wide awareness of climate change and the challenges that waterborne transport infrastructure will face; creating networks where experience of good practice can be shared; and developing technical guidance and training opportunities – all to encourage owners, operates and users to take steps to reduce emissions and eventually de-carbonise.

Time to act

"When it comes down to what you need to do, it’s not one size fits all, not only because of where you are in the world and climate parameters, but also your resources, the type of organisation you are and the flexibility you have," says Brooke.

"Uncertainty with climate change is always the biggest challenge; knowing what to do. Up until now, this uncertainty has often been relied on as a reason for inaction; there’s a temptation to delay change."

Delaying change will become harder and harder in the foreseeable future. A discussion paper by the International Transport Forum, released in 2014, predicts that emissions from shipping in ports could quadruple by 2050, highlighting that while containerships generally have short port stays, emissions are high during these stays.

The report stated: "Although most of these emissions take place at sea, the most directly noticeable part of shipping emissions takes place in port areas and port-cities. It is here that shipping emissions have the most direct health impacts."

"The most directly noticeable part of shipping emissions takes place in port areas and port-cities."

It also found that the majority of CO2 emissions in ports from shipping are in Asia and Europe, at 58%. While this report and shipping’s omission from the official COP21 agreement were not the sole drivers for PIANC’s project, there is a feeling that the time for talking has passed.

"It may not be now or never but it is certainly more important than ever to take action to reduce CO2 emissions and ports must play their part," says Captain Kevin Richardson from the International Harbour Masters’ Association, a group that is part of Think Climate.

"As the weight of evidence has grown, there is now a much greater recognition and wider acceptance that we cannot sit back and ignore the issue." He warns, however, "that is not to say that many ports around the world are doing absolutely everything they can to mitigate the effects of climate change".

Adapting infrastructure for the future

Richardson will be buoyed, though, to see that alongside PIANC there are pockets of good practice and innovation appearing. The European Sea Ports Organisation has for many years run its EcoPorts campaign and Green Guide, while in the UK all ports that are required to comply with the Port Marine Safety Code must have a published environmental policy statement.

Further afield, China is expected to implement compulsory emissions reduction requirements from 1 April onwards at the country’s three main port areas of the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas and Bohai Rim. This will mean that ships at berth in the ports of Shanghai, Ningbo-Zhoushan, Suzhou and Nantong will have to burn fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 0.5%.

In Sweden, the Gothenburg Port Authority has invested heavily in solar panels and saw a large reduction in carbon dioxide emissions when it switched to transporting goods by rail shuttle instead of by road. Fifty-five of the world’s ports have also come together in the World Ports Climate Initiative to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

These examples, particularly in China, focus more on the role of ships and the pollutants they exhale, but key to Navigating a Changing Climate is adapting infrastructure to survive extreme weather conditions.

"It’s clear that navigation infrastructure will have to adapt," says Brooke. "Even if we limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees, which is the objective, adaptation and resilience will still be needed. In practical terms it means getting into a position where navigation infrastructure will continue to function effectively, even with a change in climate parameters."

"It’s clear that navigation infrastructure will have to adapt."

In simple terms, this might involve raising the level of breakwaters to cope with storms or sea level rise. Flexibility is also essential, adds Brooke, as it could be more effective for some operators to focus on resilience rather than just building something higher, wider or deeper.

"Don’t just say sea levels will rise by 0.34m, but maybe they will rise between 0.2m-0.8m, and possibly more," she says.

In addition, while there are geographical areas that will be harder hit than others – again highlighting the necessity of having bespoke answers to the problems – there will also be small or poorly resourced operators in areas where climate change is less severe, limiting their ability to protect their infrastructure. Brooke argues, therefore, that institutional and behavioural changes are also part of the remedy.

A barrier to trade

Many of the answers to questions concerning what can be done will begin to emerge as PIANC’s initiative takes hold, but Richardson says that when developing new infrastructure, planning for climate change has to start now.

"It will not go away," he says. "It has the potential to become a real problem and a barrier to trade. It is therefore in port’s interests to get involved and look at what can be done to mitigate the effects of climate change.

"This is especially true when developing new infrastructure in ports as part of port expansion as it is always more efficient and cost effective to do so at the design stage. [We need to ensure that] every port and harbour, big and small, is aware of what it can do to play its part as we face the challenge of climate change."

And so while for now the focus of the initiative is on raising awareness, there is scope to extend the timescale, as Brooke explains: "Climate change will be a problem in the long term. It could be that come 2019, we decide that we need another detailed action plan for the next five years.

"How it could be done, I don’t know yet. But, will it need to continue in some form? Yes it will. Everybody needs to play their part."