Adaptation of transport to climate change in Europe

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Climate change threatens to compromise transport services that are indispensable for Europe's economy and society

Transport remains a critical support system for the smooth functioning of our societies and economies. It facilitates accessibility of services that are vital for business and for the quality of life of citizens. It also enables economic growth and job creation. Gradual climate change such as increases in temperature, sea level and rainfall regimes and the projected increase in frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events will seriously challenge the transport sector. Rising temperatures and extended heatwave periods increase the problems of rail buckling, pavement deterioration and thermal comfort for passengers in vehicles. Weather extremes generating floods or landslides can lead to short-term delays and interruptions but also long-term interruptions and detouring needs in the event of destroyed infrastructure. Sea-level rise can threaten harbours and other transport infrastructure and services in coastal areas. Air transport can be challenged by changing wind patterns, flooding of airport infrastructure, and other weather events. In addition, climate impacts that trigger changes in the organisation of society and economy, like different tourist destinations or agricultural productions, can impact upon transport demand.

The effects of malfunction, disturbance and broken links may stretch far beyond the originally affected area

The transport system is of trans-boundary character and highly interconnected inside its modes and across modes; hence, disturbances in one part of the network might have a domino effect in other parts too. As such, effects usually extend beyond the transport system by hindering the ability to deliver reliable services, and jeopardising the free movement of people and goods. Depending on the specific case, these indirect damage costs can be many times higher than direct costs to the transport sector itself. Transport disruptions caused by recent extreme weather events serve to illustrate what could happen in the future: it is important to anticipate the impacts of climate change on the transport system and prepare for this in time.

Despite the key role of transport and the huge challenges posed by climate change, attention to adaptation is as yet relatively low
While measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport are being implemented and are relatively high on the policy agenda, adaptation to the unavoidable impacts registers relatively low awareness and is only at an early stage. It focuses on early, planning stages and less, so far, on implementation. Measures mostly follow a piecemeal and spontaneous approach, and are often organised autonomously by the different stakeholders.

Adapting the transport system could require substantial infrastructure investments; mainstreaming of adaptation in infrastructure planning is needed now

The smooth and effective operation of the transport system relies heavily on hard and extensive infrastructures, like roads, rail tracks, bridges and ports. These are intended to last long-term, in some cases beyond 100 years. Investments are usually costly and with long return rates. An anticipatory approach starting now is necessary for planning new infrastructure or improvements and for niche development. Considering future climate trends now helps in keeping the costs for adaptation bearable and avoiding lock-ins into an unsustainable development path of the transport system. Components of infrastructure have different life cycles, and adaptation at the time of renewal of a component can be realised at marginal costs.

Low-cost options also exist, but as yet are less in focus

Mainstreaming adaptation into regular transport planning, and into other policies and plans, is not yet widespread across Europe. For example, measures planned in the context of low-carbon transport, such as improved inter-modality, also offer options for adapting transport to climate change, but currently do not include it. Many tools developed for natural disaster risk management or contingency plans can easily be made relevant for climate change adaptation too. Meanwhile, the adaptation focus is mostly on transport infrastructure, with little attention given so far to adapting operations for future climate impacts. Improving cooperation among different stakeholders and encouraging more out-of-the-box thinking would enable better benefiting from such synergies and low‑cost options.

Cooperation between the many diverse stakeholders within and outside the transport sector can help achieve more efficient and effective adaptation

Transport is a complex sector with many different stakeholders, both in the private and public sector, such as infrastructure and services providers across different modes, producers of vehicles, regulators and, finally, users. Their actions are interconnected, but many stakeholders have only a partial perspective of the system they play a part in managing. A fragmented approach is unlikely to be efficient or to guarantee the necessary consistency to address long-term challenges. Moving from isolated and spontaneous adaptation to integrated, complementary and mutually supportive action of the many different stakeholders involved in the different transport modes and outside the sector can enable more effective and efficient adaptation.

The EU and national governments can create the enabling framework and invest in the knowledge base

While many adaptation measures need to be implemented directly by transport infrastructure and services providers (both private and public), the EU and national governments have a prominent role in enabling this integrated approach and cooperation by organising exchanges of experience, facilitating the generation of tailored knowledge and tools, and stimulating solution-finding across the board. Knowledge can be generated through, for example, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020), national programmes, and information shared by Climate-ADAPT and national portals.

The EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change and national adaptation strategies are a starting point, but need to ensure that transport is included as an important and integral element. Furthermore, they need to create the enabling framework for integrated and innovative transport adaptation action, comprising standards, targeted funding, governance culture and collaboration.

The magnitude of climate change and related socio‑economic change suggests potential benefits from exploring innovative options

Incremental improvements of transport infrastructure, operations and services based on past experience deliver valuable solutions that also work under the new conditions being created by climate change. This is still the prevailing approach among most stakeholders in the transport sector. However, given the magnitude of expected change, these approaches alone are unlikely to be sufficient. The anticipated impacts suggest long-term visions as well as thinking about solutions outside traditional paths in areas like spatial planning, relocations of infrastructure or regional flood risk management, and the exploration of transitional changes by organising future accessibility differently. Prevalent transport paradigms such as efficiency need to be reconsidered together with alternative paradigms such as flexibility using, for example, multi-modal concepts instead of uni-modal solutions, technology and redundancy.

Adaptation to climate change is a new policy area; the effectiveness of current steps should be evaluated in the future

Strategies, plans, guidance and innovative actions have been initiated by the EU and national governments. Funding streams like the TEN-T budget, the EU Structural Funds and national funds, among others, have integrated climate change considerations within their eligibility criteria, but the integration of adaptation within planning and assessment practices is at the very early stage and will need to be monitored and evaluated in the next years.

This report

The European Environment Agency (EEA) and others have long identified transport as an important sector in environmental terms. Over the last 15 years, the EEA has published annually the Transport and Environmental Reporting Mechanism (TERM) report looking into specific topics of sustainable transport, such as air quality, noise or urban transport, and tracked progress towards the achievement of environmental targets in this sector. In recent years, climate change adaptation started to emerge as a new issue on the policy agenda. As an initial step towards the necessary widespread mainstreaming of climate change adaptation into transport planning and decision-making, this report aims to shed light on initial adaptation practices in the transport sector across Europe while providing a perspective on the emerging challenges and opportunities.

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