Australia’s plan for a climate resilient future
Escalating natural disasters are prompting a shift in policy thinking from recovery towards resiliency and building back better.
While COVID-19 may have overtaken recent political thinking and policy making, the impact and memories of natural disaster events such as the devastating 2019 and 2020 bushfires, hail-storms, flash flooding and dust storms across Australia remain very real and of great concern to communities. The reality is that the frequency and severity of such extreme natural events are now escalating across the country.
As a consequence, the economic, environmental and social impact of these events are having a critical influence on the lives we currently lead. Whether we live in rural communities or in the ever-expanding cities and urban environments, the effect of the changing climate is inescapable.
But as cities and rural areas recover and rebuild, how can the public and private sectors place greater emphasis on building resilience into our critical infrastructure?
Embracing infrastructure resilience
The impacts of climate change are a truly global issue. According to insurer AON’s latest Global Catastrophe Recap for the first half of 2020, there were 207 natural disasters around the world. This was above the 185 global average and was “marked by many small and medium-scale disasters which were impactful to many communities around the world” with flooding accounting for 60 percent of global deaths through natural disasters.
Natural disasters also have a devastating impact on all living things. During the 2019 and 2020 Australian bushfires, nearly 50 nationally threatened animal and plant species are believed to have had at least 80 percent of the area in which they live affected by the bushfires.
This increase in natural disasters is a clear indicator that mitigating and adapting to a changing climate is becoming the biggest challenge facing every administration globally.
Infrastructure professionals find themselves as key players in driving solutions to this challenge. In Australia, the scale of the problem makes it clear that tackling the growing climate emergency will require a rethink in strategy.
Lessons have been learnt about disaster recovery from events such as the 2018 Central Queensland bushfires and widespread cyclones and associated flooding across Queensland in 2010-2014, and before that the 2011 Christchurch catastrophic earthquake in New Zealand's South Island.
We are seeing Government thinking pivot away from simple recovery towards infrastructure plans which design and build greater resilience for the long-term. Rather than racing to replace damaged or destroyed assets, the shift is towards predicting and preventing future disasters.
While success was once about rebuilding efficiently, today the measures are based around building back better in order to sustain vital communities.
Incentivising investment in mitigation and resilience
The need for this change was highlighted by the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission report in 2015 into natural disaster funding. This report criticised the consistent overinvestment in post-disaster reconstruction and underinvestment in mitigation and steps to limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place.
All sectors can learn from this report, not least transportation which has suffered from a long history of planning through a ‘predict and provide’ lens.
While technology is changing how we live and use our built environment, the growing need to mitigate climate change has spawned a new movement towards responsible investment by the private sector.
Moreover, public sector authorities increasingly understand that demands for resilient social and community returns from new infrastructure will make projects significantly more attractive to potential investors.
Such thinking has been pioneered globally by organisations such as the Resilient Cities Network, which was established in 2013 to help member cities build resilience into the physical, social, and economic planning.
Private and public sector working together
Building resiliency into our infrastructure investments is complex and requires coordination across the public and private sector. In Australia, that means Local, State and Federal Government must work closely with key public sector agencies and the private sector to stimulate investment and rethink the planning process.
A key example is Queensland Reconstruction Authority, which has led action on resilience, having been set up after the 2010 natural disasters to rethink and develop the state’s recovery. New South Wales and Victoria have now followed and are starting to develop their own agencies.
These agencies operate on the premise that communities benefit from wider thinking around resilience to help mitigate the potential impacts of future disasters.
We are starting to see resilient thinking now driving wider energy policies across all levels of Australian Government. For private sector developers this new approach should make long-term renewable energy investment decisions possible, based on the secure knowledge of the likely tariffs and returns that lie ahead.
Renewables to underpin resilience planning
While resilience planning is critical across every infrastructure sector, the energy sector is seeing a significant change in approach and in the policies that support reduction in climate impact. The 200-plus project pipeline planned in Australia’s renewable sector provides a different scale of opportunity to create change.
This policy correction towards renewables is an important step in ensuring the private sector is able to fully engage and bring both funding and expertise to drive a new era of more sustainable and more resilient thinking to Australia’s infrastructure planning.
Regardless of sector or global location, it is critical that infrastructure professionals are able to embrace the concepts of sustainability and resilience. Equally, Governments need to continue to strengthen their support for this resilience through the policies, legislation, platforms and processes that underpin investment in essential infrastructure.
As project delivery professionals our role is to plan and deliver quality schemes into operation and to generate revenue as fast as possible for our clients. But we must also be capable of making an honest and open assessment of the performance of those assets – be they in energy, transportation, water or communication - across their whole life and to explain how that performance might change over time.
Adopting a resilient approach across infrastructure requires complex change, but it is vital to the market and to the future of our communities.