Eric Bosco is executive director and Annie Levasseur is scientific director of the newly launched Circular-Built Infrastructure Institute at École de Technologie Supérieure.
The message coming out of the latest UN Climate Change Conference is loud and clear: Climate change is no longer tomorrow’s problem. It’s happening now, with serious impact to our infrastructure, and the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better. We simply can’t afford to continue building infrastructure the same way we always have.
You don’t have to look further than Hurricane Fiona to measure the significant economic and social impact increased severe weather events are having on infrastructure. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses throughout Atlantic Canada were without power for more than a week and the federal government’s fall economic forecast has earmarked $1-billion just to cover expected requests from eastern provinces for financial aid.
In Canada’s Arctic region, which is warming at three times the average global rate, the effects of thawing permafrost are causing homes and hydro poles to sink into the ground, and destroying critical boardwalks. Then there are B.C. wildfires moving dangerously closer to communities – with 2021 marking the third worst season on record – and the high cost of extreme flooding, which handed Montreal a $17-million price tag in the spring of 2019.
The Canadian Climate Institute predicts the financial impact of climate change will grow to $5-billion per year by 2025, climbing to $17.5-billion annually by 2050. Costs associated with flood damage, damage to roads and railways, and damage to electrical transmission and distribution infrastructures are all forecast to rise to billions of dollars per year.
How much louder does the wake-up call need to be? Preliminary reports from Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy recommend that all infrastructure systems be climate resilient by 2050, with technical standards and a robust investment framework in place by 2030. If there’s any hope in meeting these goals, forward-thinking work must begin today.
To ensure future infrastructure resiliency, we need new technology and designs. We also need to take into account the full life cycle of everything man-made, from buildings, sewers and water mains, to roadways, bridges, and electrical and communication grids, to ensure our infrastructures also help to mitigate climate change as much as possible.
One way to do this is to apply a circular economy model, which entails producing infrastructure that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials as long as possible.
Not only must new infrastructure be capable of withstanding severe weather and natural disasters, it also needs to be fabricated in a mindful way. That means using environmentally friendly materials from the start, keeping emissions as low as possible and taking steps to avoid landfill at end of product and building life by planning for deconstruction, recycling and reuse.
Paramount to this solution is for all stakeholders – private industry, research institutions and government policy makers – to work collaboratively together to prepare for what comes next. It’s all well and good to set climate targets for 2030, 2050 and beyond, yet the reality is we are already suffering the impact of climate change and we need to adapt to those changes.
The good news is that Canada already has some of the top researchers in the world working on material science, digital technologies and innovative designs to transform infrastructure. From designing modular buildings that evolve as needs change and developing pro-active sensors to improve infrastructure inspection and repair, to designing equipment for the purpose of recuperating and reusing building materials at end of life, the researchers’ innovative work is creating excellent job and export opportunities for our country. But the time to turn research into action is now.
It’s time to stop looking in the rear-view mirror when it comes to climate change and infrastructure. We must look ahead now, and start by finding creative ways to bring promising research out of the lab and into the real world to make real change.