Climate crisis puts critical transport infrastructure at risk

UNECE study highlights which European road, rail and river networks face major threats.

A sign for a cruising boat stands in the floods of the river Rhine as a freighter ship passes by in Koenigswinter
A sign for a cruise boat stands in the floodwaters of the river Rhine as a freight ship passes by in Koenigswinter, Germany, on February 6, 2020 [Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

Transport infrastructure remains highly vulnerable to the changing climate, says a new study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Mapping out European geography to show serious risks to roadways, railways, ports, airports and inland waterways, the report refers to “unprecedented threats” from increasingly powerful storms.

It cites extreme weather in Spain that has destroyed bridges, cut off roads, sliced rail lines and submerged whole coastal towns.

In the United Kingdom, the annual cost of dealing with higher levels of precipitation, flooding and other events – estimated at 50 million pounds ($65m) in 2010 – could rise to 500 million pounds ($650m) by the 2040s.

While the European Union has articulated the price tag for firming up bridges against rising waters, the importance of adaptation for transport systems has often not been acknowledged.

Since most of Europe’s transportation grids were constructed for the climate of the 20th century, the report said, precisely laying out the weak points is crucial to mobilising more public investment. In the 21st century, transport requires more durability and resilience to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

UNECE report roads
Within the E Roads network, many key arteries are vulnerable to severe impacts from climate change over the next few decades [ECE]

Jean Rodriguez, the Geneva-based spokesperson for UNECE, said, “The main takeaway is to make a call to member states, and the transport industry as well, about the need to pay due attention to adaptation to climate change.”

Rodriguez told Al Jazeera that drastic impacts are “already here and happening all around the world … destroying roads and causing delays”.

But he also said that investing in adaptation pays off, adding that “the state of transport infrastructure is already stretched, and the level of investment is already low to maintain current infrastructure in operating mode”.

The study gives the example of Iceland, where port officials have needed to raise the level of docks so they are not overwhelmed by higher sea levels that could halt freight flows.

One key place susceptible to the ravages of unpredictable weather patterns is the Rhine River Valley, in Germany and neighbouring countries, which forms one of the busiest areas for the traffic of goods in Europe.

Rodriguez said the “highly dense area with a huge network of many different motorways, and passenger and cargo railway tracks” needs better adaptation. Navigational problems could slow down the movement of people and economically important items.

The report says that greater wave activity could cause erosion that puts over 60 percent of EU seaports under high inundation risk by 2100. With operations disrupted and damages sustained to both port infrastructure and vessels, cargo transport will undoubtedly be affected.

UNECE report seas
Projections of extreme sea levels show significant rises by the end of the 21st century, endangering port infrastructure and other important coastal environments [ECE]

Rising temperatures from heatwaves will mean longer, hotter and drier summers. Among the results will be cracked roads and increased landslides in mountainous areas.

A press release accompanying the report, which also covered Canadian transport, said that rail networks would experience “buckling of tracks, slope failures and speed restrictions”.

UNECE supervises 59 different international agreements in the field of transport that were negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations.

Its members include all of Europe, Canada and the United States, in addition to the Caucasus, Israel, Turkey and Central Asia.

However, UNECE has called on all countries to participate in its efforts to ramp up climate change adaptation.

Source: Al Jazeera