A recent report has highlighted the monumental investment required for Asia’s ports to adapt to the risks associated with climate change.

The HSBC-sponsored study urges all interested stakeholders to consider the implications of climate change in port development plans, and many leading analysts strongly back the report’s warnings.

Climate costs for Asia Pacific Ports, commissioned by HSBC and authored by Asia Research & Engagement, focuses on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the associated sea-ports and trade links, and the need to build up infrastructure resilience to climate change. The report aims to start a conversation about how ports adapt to the risks associated with climate change.

The urgency of the task at hand is highlighted at the report’s outset. The report cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which pinpoints dangers emanating from extreme weather, rising sea-levels, storm surges and infrastructural damage in their Fifth Assessment Report.

These dangers create risks “for coastal infrastructure, including the ports across Asia Pacific that underpin global trade flows”, according to this latest Asia Research & Engagement analysis.

The IPCC insists procrastination is not an option, “Adaptation and mitigation choices in the near-term will affect the risks of climate change throughout the 21st century.”

The report considers the effects of sea-level rises (SLR) and storm surges. Authors suggested there is better data available modelling SLR, whereas the predictability of storm surges is not as well quantified. However, a separate study published in Nature “found that typhoons that land in East and Southeast Asia have intensified by 12-15% over the past four decades.”

Asia Research & Engagement estimates a total outlay of between $31b and $49b to protect and elevate 53 of the most important ports in the region to adapt to climate-related risks. The range of costs involved depends on different engineering assumptions and climate scenarios.

Sources: Climate Costs for Asia Pacific Ports; ARE calculations; World Port Index Database, The U.S. National Geospatial-intelligence Agency; Google Earth Pro; Turner and Townsend, International Construction Market Survey 2017.

Modelling studies expect port structure will need extra height requirements of between 1.6m and 2.3m to adapt to climate change. The study sets out a series of recommendations moving forward for “asset owners, governments and financiers”.

These include:

  • Developing scenarios related to climate changes
  • Evaluating safety margins for current infrastructure
  • Ensuring further upgrades consider changes in parameters
  • Factoring rising sea levels and storm surges for new ports
  • Securing funding for improvements in the longer term if short-term upgrade costs are too prohibitive
  • Making sure different layers of governments are coordinated in their approach

One interesting finding is that developed countries are “far more expensive to adapt”. For instance, Japanese ports have higher material and labour costs compared to Chinese ports, plus a higher proportion of building and warehouse areas. These areas are costlier to elevate. The report authors pinpointed some jurisdictions, such as Singapore, which are quite advanced in their thinking. The island state stipulated higher requirements for raising land way back in 2011.

For Professor Michele Acciaro, Associate Professor of Maritime Logistics, Kühne Logistics University, ports face multiple challenges in reacting to risks associated with climate change.  Acciaro, a port logistics expert, who authored analysis used in the research for this latest study, believes each port has its own unique set of issues. Making port officials and firms aware of the issue; deciding to act and the type of action to take, and finding the funding are key priorities, he insisted.

In a previous Forward with Toll article on extreme weather, we looked at some of the challenges facing coastal regions in adapting to storm surges and rising sea levels and the need for infrastructural improvements.

He stressed, “Unfortunately, each port is likely to face very different impacts from climate change so that their adaptation strategy is going to be unique and a one-fits-all solution does not exist. It is important that ports carry out their assessment, not only because of individual climate change impacts but also as a result of joint effects taking place at the same time.”

The report highlights how some ports have already implemented measures. The Port of Rotterdam, for example, incorporated a seawall to protect against storm surges in 2016. Acciaro pointed out that the Dutch have a long tradition of flood protection and possess the best engineers in the world to adapt to rising sea levels.

Acciaro warned, “However, the challenges faced by Rotterdam as a port in the estuary of a big river, and with a large urban area built below sea level, are specific to Rotterdam. So optimal adaptation does not need to follow what Rotterdam has done. The approach taken in terms of risk identification, and identification of measures for adaptation and action, is a good example.”

He added, “Besides it is likely that most port authorities will make gradual changes – to identify the most urgent ones, then plan for adapting all infrastructure.”

Acciaro echoes some of the recommendations of the report, suggesting some of the adaptation measures might require coordination with other stakeholders, including port tenants, neighbouring firms, local communities, public authorities and others.

He believes one of the main obstacles to progress is ascertaining the actual costs of a disaster. This prohibits making a business case for adaption measures from port to port. He warns the costs of a disaster can be substantial – enormous in terms of financial and human losses.

“However, an accurate measure is hard to make, and this is what makes deciding on adaptation measure so difficult. The costs of adaptation are certain; those of the disasters are not,” he clarified.

He added, “Convincing some port officials that climate change is a real threat, and making a solid business case given the uncertainty associated with its effects, is very hard. However, the costs can be enormous, and the chances of disaster striking are growing.”

This recent HSBC-backed report suggests some of the costs could be met through insurance cover in the short term. However, securing insurance provision in the longer term could become increasingly problematic unless ports upgrade their protections, report authors concluded.

Acciaro also suggests there are effects of climate change other than storms and SLR that ports need to consider.

He explained, “There might be other effects (fires, draughts, landslides, coastal erosion, sedimentation, wind changes, changes in trade patterns, migration) that could be extremely relevant for certain ports. To assume that climate change will affect ports only through SLR and storms is a bit reductive, although, it is acknowledged that this is what most port officials consider.”

A second issue is that it is possible that these effects will be combined, Acciaro explained, making responses even harder to predict. This implies that for some effects, it is very difficult to adapt or even identify adequate adaptation measures.

He added, “A major issue related to the storm and SLR is that the areas neighbouring the port might be affected, making the port unusable even if above water. So also, in this case, a port-specific study should consider a broader focus than port areas,” he added.

He added that whether a port decides to adapt to climate change is not straightforward. The decision to undertake any adaptation depends on the overall costs of not adapting, which depends on the probability of an extreme event occurring.

He explained, “The willingness to accept a certain probability is largely a socially determined parameter. So, what might be acceptable in port A, might not be acceptable in port B.”

Findings in Acciaro’s report, entitled Port Decision Maker Perceptions on the Effectiveness of Climate Adaptation Actions, suggest that while port decision makers are aware of potential climate change impacts and feel that more adaptation actions should be undertaken, they are sceptical about their effectiveness and value.

Dr Yip, Associate Professor, Department of Logistics and Maritime Studies, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, insists port operations will become very different if SLR is more than 0.5m because the freeboard of existing port structures will become too small. He suggests the report makes for an excellent discursive document, but operational resilience is missing from the analysis.

He warned, “New port structures due to SLR may not be urgently needed. However, new port structures against water over-topping are needed promptly, because winds and storms have already become stronger. Water over-topping is due to stronger winds and strong storms.”

NASA reported that SLR is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and the expansion of seawater as it warms. Scientific data suggests the two scenarios presented in the report are reasonable, according to Yip.

The report also makes it clear the effects of climate change on different regions will vary substantially. Acciaro suggests all ports should carry out studies now and then plan to adapt depending on the criticality and exposure of their infrastructure.