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by Patrick Hastings, Chief Delivery Officer, Infrastructure Sustainability Council

It seems astonishing that two years after we were shocked by the unprecedented awe and impact of the Black Summer fires, we stand again humbled by the power of mother nature, this time due to the ongoing tragic flooding events in South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales.

As someone who has spent most of their life living in Queensland and was in Brisbane for the 2011 floods, it is hard to describe just how much water fell from the sky that fateful week in February. The experience was nothing short of sobering.

The most brilliant of engineering was no match, as watercourses and flood plains came to life, transformed into roaring and raging torrents, taking everything in its path.

The impacts of course, are apparent, on people, communities, government and businesses, from the initial emergency response through to recovery and rebuild. A month later, the costs are still being added up and communities, households and businesses are a long way from resuming life as normal.

Many of these impacts are intangible and impossible to quantify – loss of connection, identity, disruption and trauma. Others are easier to measure. The Insurance Council of Australia has reported that 173,346 claims have been lodged so far from the east coast flooding totalling over $2.43 billion. Those numbers don’t include the costs to public assets and property nor, of course, those that don’t have insurance.

Addressing climate resilience

Through the recent IPCC reports we know that these events are going to happen more frequently and more severely. The COP26 agenda last November called out that we need to be equally committed to addressing climate resilience as decarbonisation. Long gone is the idea that resilience planning, investment and action is pulling out of the race to zero early.

While resilience at an asset or local government level has been undertaken for some time now, the results are patchy and certainly not integrated as part of broader regional and national cohesive strategy that captures response, recovery and rebuild. This has led to a shortfall in resilience thinking and investment.

To catch up, it is estimated that $3 trillion per year is going to need to be spent globally above and beyond existing infrastructure spending. The growing risk profile for the OECD and G20 funds and insurers investors is estimated to be around USD$11 trillion, with total ‘value at risk’ if we aren’t able to meet climate targets estimated at USD$25 trillion by 2100.

So great is the gap, a coalition of international financiers, insurances, construction and engineering houses, governments, researchers and development organisations developed a paper for COP26.

In their report Risk and Resilience – Addressing physical climate risks in infrastructure investment, the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment described the need to incorporate physical climate risk into infrastructure design and investment decision-making as a ‘’climate resilience market failure’’.

What they detail is nothing short of a house of cards – an inability to be able to adequately measure and analyse resilience, finance and insurance markets; unable to accurately assess risk and set pricing; and poor definition and division of responsibilities between the public and private sphere.

While it is easy to get lost in the financial jargon, it is important to remember that if this type of scenario eventuates it is likely to be everyday people, businesses and local organisations that will have the world come crashing down around them.

So what is to be done?

Firstly, we need to start measuring what matters so that we have a common data set around defining and benchmarking, not just asset resilience but the ‘resilience services’ infrastructure provides to people and communities. It needs to be localised, with support from state governments and a single data-set to provide a national picture of strengths and vulnerabilities.

Models such as Queensland’s QCoast 2100 and Victoria’s Resilient Coast programs are great examples of state governments providing local councils with capacity and capability to do the work that needs doing.

Secondly, we need to ensure that a systemic and participatory approach is taken to resilience and adaptive capacity planning. It is almost impossible to undertake effective resilience planning in a silo. All actors need to have input, consideration, and most importantly, co-ownership of the actions.

Fires and floods do not discriminate between public and private assets and the impacts are rarely simple, but cumulative and cascading. A power outage can affect water and sewerage services and telecommunications, while recovery of those systems can be hampered by cut off roads and rail. Seawalls to prevent sea level rise will have limited efficacy if designed and built in a patchwork formation across land-owners.

Thirdly, we need to be building infrastructure for resilience, not just resilient infrastructure. This means accelerating and scaling technology, innovation and regenerative, nature-based approaches to address vulnerability, improve resilience to shocks, and where appropriate, facilitate adaptation and change to leave us stronger than we were before.

This should not just be focused on the asset, but by the whole place and its people – cities, towns and regions. This may require some bold leadership at times but in the face of fire, floods, droughts and cyclones there is limited capacity for solutions that only half-work.

Fourthly, we need to determine the finance and business model that will inject the investment required to get us climate ready, create confidence and transparency in the model place, and perhaps most importantly, ensure that nobody gets left behind – that climate readiness is equitable and inclusive. Roles and responsibilities in terms of planning, investment, design and delivery, operations, response and recovery need to be crystal clear from the outset.

Meanwhile back in Queensland and the New South Wales North Coast, the recovery is only just beginning. A visceral example of systemic disaster is playing out – there is no quick fix or knight-in-shining-armor around the corner. There is a distinctive murmur this time around, questioning if we need to rethink our collective approach.

Suggestions include the relocation of towns such as Gympie and Lismore and government buy-back scheme of flood-prone properties in inner-city Brisbane, demonstrating just how open the public is to bold decision-making in order to make us climate ready and future proofed.

The real question on the back of another catastrophic summer is if we don’t commit to catching up in the climate readiness race now, then when?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Hastings leads the delivery of IS Rating Scheme (IS), Australia and New Zealand’s only comprehensive rating system for evaluating economic, social, and environmental performance of infrastructure across the planning, design, construction and operational phases of infrastructure assets, portfolios and precincts. Climate adaptation and resilience is one of areas in which the IS Rating Scheme drives performance and outcomes which focus on embedded resilience planning with deep stakeholder involvement.

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