Paul Chinowsky: Canada’s Aging Infrastructure is Not Prepared for Climate Change

An Interview with Paul Chinowsky

“Something built to last twenty years now may only last fifteen to eighteen years. That doesn’t sound like a lot when we’re talking about a single road but think of that across an entire country or continent. Climate change really is an accelerant. The environment of the 1960s and 1970s doesn’t exist anymore.”

Canada’s Aging Infrastructure is Not Prepared for Climate Change

How is climate change compounding the challenges related to aging infrastructure? What types of infrastructure are most vulnerable to climate change?  What kinds of infrastructure maintenance needs to be prioritized the most in Canada and North America more broadly?

The 1970s was the golden age of infrastructure. Much of what you see today was built during that time. There were huge investments in water systems, highways, and rail. Most infrastructure only has a projected lifespan of 40 to 50 years. We are already past the point at which we would have had to start replacing or renewing our infrastructure. Our infrastructure is aging, regardless of climate change—that is the baseline. Bridges need to be rehabilitated and roads need to be completely redone. Climate change introduces new variables that leads to further, more rapid deterioration of our infrastructure. Extreme heat has a massive impact on our roads, which are buckling as steel and concrete expand and contract. Bridges have similar issues—they can literally pop apart due to steel expansion.

An issue we’re seeing now is flooding caused by early snow melt, which impacts our water systems—whether it’s wastewater treatment or drinking water. We’re overwhelming plants with too much water, and they don’t have the ability to move this water to where it can safely be handled. This leads to other issues like sewage leaks, which can contaminate water supplies. One infrastructure failure can have many consequences. Air travel is impacted by extreme heat too. When it is too warm, you don’t get as much lift. We are used to the temperatures that much of our infrastructure was built to withstand. As the world becomes much hotter, our planes, bridges, and roads are put under pressure they weren’t necessarily designed to withstand. Climate change is reducing the lifespan of our infrastructure by 20 to 30% in some instances. Something built to last twenty years now may only last fifteen to eighteen years. That doesn’t sound like a lot when we’re talking about a single road but think of that across an entire country or continent. Climate change really is an accelerant. The environment of the 1960s and 1970s doesn’t exist anymore.

Historically, more affluent sections of cities have better, more reliable infrastructure. Aging infrastructure and climate change has had a disproportionate impact on lower income areas, which are statistically home to larger minority or indigenous communities. It’s not necessarily that infrastructure and climate change is targeting certain communities, but there is a gap that is widening between rich and poor. Canada’s indigenous communities struggle as a result of failing infrastructure in the north, where permafrost is thawing, damaging above ground pipes and pipelines, and foundations of houses. Communities like this are disproportionately impacted by the effects climate change has on our aging infrastructure.

We’re no longer simply talking about mitigation, but how to cut emissions. How will we manage the (at this point) inevitable impacts of climate change? Hopefully we will—through international agreements— minimize climate change, but there is still going to be some climate change. Roads are the most susceptible to climate change, whether it’s high temperatures on surfaces, whether it’s extreme precipitation, or erosion. We need to rethink the way we design roads. Asphalt is designed for a very narrow band of temperatures—cold or hot. We have to redesign the chemistry of that surface to make it more resilient to temperature extremes. We have to increase the depth and drainage ability of our roads as well. We have to tear them up, redesign them, and build thicker bases so they drain better. That sounds straightforward, but it gets complicated when we start thinking about intense rain, which impacts water systems.

As part of a study, you analyzed ten countries with varying income levels to determine the relative impact of climate change in the context of paved and unpaved roads. What is the disparity of opportunity costs between high- and low-income countries? What other significant findings did the study yield?

Roads are the most fundamental infrastructure. They are indispensable to economic growth and development all over the world. Without them, nothing else works. Our study was anchored by a central question—does climate change and the cost of climate change to roads impact countries differently, depending on their income level? We looked at Europe, South America, and Asia, and noticed two key findings: 1) the more infrastructure you have, the more total cost you have. 2) When we have to take money and repair roads because of the effects of climate change, we can’t build new roads, which are necessary to grow the economy. Lower income countries are disproportionately impacted by climate change, because they don’t have large budgets to work on roads in the first place. With the increasing impacts of climate change, more of their budgets must go to repairs. Therefore, the relative impact of climate change on low-income countries is much higher than for high-income countries.

Resilient Analytics, a company you founded, contributed to a study detailing the costs of climate change to infrastructure assets across Canada. Is the scale of risk to Canada’s critical infrastructure well understood?

Canada has unique challenges emanating from its enormous geography and varying climate conditions. The Northern territories pose many challenges, including the numerous airfields and dependency on ice roads. Warming occurring earlier in the year is going to make it increasingly difficult to access vital infrastructure. Ice roads will no longer be reliable in the future. Western Canada—British Columbia, in particular—is increasingly vulnerable due an increase in the severity of heat waves and more intense rain. As is the case in other instances, the infrastructure that was designed decades ago, did not take the effects of climate change into account. British Columbia, historically, has had a very moderate climate, and suddenly, we’re seeing weather extremes. Resultingly, there will be higher energy demand and flooding.

The preparedness is not where it needs to be. That isn’t necessarily a fault of ours, the circumstances now are just very different than what they were forty years ago. We are going to see the same pattern across Canada in the coming years. Eastern Canada will have more intense freeze-thaw cycles, which break down pipelines and damage runways. Canada has always had a stable climate, but now it is being disrupted, and that’s where the critical infrastructure is more vulnerable— you have changes and variations that haven’t seen before.

What can the various levels of Canadian government do to prepare for and reduce disruption and costs of climate change to infrastructure? What are some of the challenges involved with cultivating the rapid policy responses needed to address the challenges climate change poses to so much of our critical infrastructure? 

There are many challenges inherent in cultivating a government response to address both climate change and upgrading critical infrastructure. Historically, infrastructure was paid for at the federal level, and then maintained at the local level. That model works when everything’s working well, and when there is no unexpected maintenance required. When infrastructure needs to be updated or replaced, this model collapses, because local governments can’t afford the vast increases that are necessary, nor do they have the appropriate tools. Local cities, whether Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, have to then look to their provincial governments, who may, in turn, say we’re responsible for everything outside of your city boundaries—not our responsibility—federal government, you take over. The first issue that must be addressed is determining what level of government is responsible for repairs or upgrades. This causes endless problems.

First, we need a re-examination of funding priorities. Take rail, for instance. We must look at protecting rail against higher temperatures, particularly in Western Canada. This is something the federal government needs to invest in. Long term, I think there will be a re-emergence of public-private partnerships within infrastructure investment, because no single entity is going to be able to afford it. Upgrading our electrical grids is so critical, particularly if we can expect more electric vehicles on the road—it will require completely different infrastructure. Local governments need to think about what kinds of critical infrastructure they can manage and fund through local revenue, and determine what is outside their capability, at which point the federal government will need to step in.

Deciding how to equitably distribute this funding is very difficult. New York City is devoting $100 billion towards infrastructure that will mitigate the effects of sea level rise. Is that appropriate or fair? In Canada, how much funding is going to the maritime provinces? How much will the Northern territories require? I think we need to have a dedicated office in the government devoted to climate change, which is responsible for this kind of decision making.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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