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How can ports and terminals adapt to climate risks?

June 15, 2023

Port and terminal operators face challenges in adapting to the threats from climate change, but there are strategies to help build and customize transition programs to the needs of each facility.
Climate Risk and Resilience

Port and terminal operators would be well counselled to act quickly to prevent the worst of the potential impacts to their operations from a changing global environment. Those were the messages delivered to delegates at WTW’s latest Ports and Terminals webinar, Ports and terminals: How to adapt to climate risks.

Expert panelists from WTW and the Port of London told delegates that, with very few exceptions, analysis suggested that global port operations were lagging other transport sectors such as rail, airports, and road networks in devising strategies to respond to climate change. And that, in general, adaptation strategies themselves continued to receive far less attention and resources than climate mitigation or decarbonization across all industry.

Delegates were told the latter observation may be due in part to the complexity of adaption plans and the associated difficulties estimating their moving costs. From the decision-maker’s perspective, it was far less complicated to get approval from stakeholders for transitioning yard fleets to electric power than it was to get sign off for the less-defined and evolving costs of climate adaptation. Nevertheless, the need for action is increasingly urgent.

In its report to parliament (March 2023) on England’s progress in adapting to climate change, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent, statutory body created under the country’s Climate Change Act 2008, found “very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed”.

“While the recognition of a changing climate within planning and policy is increasing, the current approach to adaptation policy is not leading to delivery on the ground,” the report warned, adding that the 3rd term of the country’s National Adaptation Program needed to be “much more ambitious than its predecessors”.

Climate-driven maritime accidents such as those that befell the Ever Given and the Papaa 305, and ever-more powerful storms such Hurricane Irma and Cyclone Mekunu that damage port infrastructure, have convinced operators that the threats to their businesses from climate change are real.

Having introduced the current state of play, webinar discussion turned to strategies for adaptation planning. Delegates were shown a process recommended in a report from World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, formerly known as the Permanent International Association of Navigation Congresses (PIANC).

PIANC’s four-stage planning process requires adopters to define the context and objectives of the exercise, define climate information and projections, assess risks and vulnerabilities and then use that information to shape adaptation measures.

Each facility requires bespoke adaptations planning, but as owners/operators define their goals, the assets, operations and systems most likely to be affected by climate change need to be identified and the interdependencies of these systems need to be understood, along with how critical they are to maintaining operations. The individuals and organizations who should be involved in the planning process, including stakeholders, also need to be identified.

PIANC suggests that scientific facts and data are needed to establish baseline climate conditions and forecasts for how those conditions may shift: the environmental conditions (wind, temperatures, water levels, etc.) that are most likely to change need to be identified as well as the parameters that are likely to change, and by how much.

Forecasting is not an exact science, so creating strategies for dealing with uncertainty should be part of this stage of planning.

Identifying climate change risks and their potential impact on ports and operations is best defined on two levels, PIANC found: physical and economic. Poll respondents at the webinar indicated they were most concerned with rising sea and wind levels.

In that light, potential physical impacts could include how drainage systems on the port apron may be overwhelmed and cause flooding, for example, changes in the dockside water currents or wave sizes also may lead to difficulties in berthing ships or erode the terminals’ subsea beds.

Potential economic impacts are best divided into two subsets, according to PIANC: direct and indirect. Some of the direct impacts become clear once the most vulnerable and mission-critical infrastructure and systems are identified for reinforcement, or investment.

Indirect impacts, which are less easy to quantify, could be better understood by analyzing how the effects of climate change can impact other industries, and potentially change quantities or timing of goods, or even passenger traffic, through some ports and waterways.

Industry decarbonization efforts also have significant potential to escalate shipowner transitions to electric or hydrogen-powered ships, forcing port operators to change infrastructure and the products they sell.

Many of these indirect events will have direct consequences on port expenses and the capital costs of adapting infrastructure, operations and systems.

Adaptation measures

Webinar delegates were told that adaptation measures for port and terminal operators generally fell into three categories: physical, social and institutional.

The importance of data for adaptation

The success of all the planning and adaptation measures mentioned above is contingent upon the identification of quality, location-relevant data and the right models to analyse it. Ports and terminals seem to be behind industries such as aviation and manufacturing in using the value of data for planning and forecasting.

Delegates were informed about sources of climate data available, some open source, such as the Copernicus Climate Change Service from the European Centre of Medium-Range Weather Forecasts or the UK’s Climate Projections Project to support analysis.

While not all of it is appropriate for every adaptation project, it was still possible to access data sources with pre-existing climate projections that are relevant to port or terminal assessments.

Lastly, the panel accentuated the value of workshops as tools which provide port managements with a vehicle to engage stakeholders, both internal and external, and build confidence in the climate baselines from which disruption models.

Used to their full potential, analytics provide in-depth climate-risk profiles for ports and terminals, identify their vulnerabilities and highlight changes that may be needed to asset or system designs, which is especially key for older architectures. In short, data analytics can provide a trusted baseline for building port resilience to emerging climate change hazards.

This article has been written by the WTW Ports and Terminals Forum – a unique community created by WTW to provide a platform for the debate on the sector’s current challenges.

Thank you to our webinar speakers who contributed to the creation of this article:

  • Ester Calavia Garsaball, Director, Strategic Risk Consulting, WTW
  • Dulce María Pérez Romero, Associate Director, Strategic Risk Consulting, WTW
  • James Palmer, Head of Civil Engineering, Port of London Authority
  • Nick May (Moderator), Client Relationship Director, Marine Special Risks, WTW

Client Relationship Director, Marine Special Risks

Executive Director, Marine

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