Asia Climate Change Uncertainty

Feature | 3 October 2013

Development project officers struggle to adapt global models of climate change to regional uncertainties.

Climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions could warm the globe by two degrees or more in the coming decades. The impacts of such changes in the climate could be severe in areas around the world. Asia and the Pacific is particularly vulnerable. The region hosts seven out of ten of the nations most at risk to climate change.

The warming of the climate is expected to increase droughts, floods, powerful tropical storms and to trigger sea level rise. The loss of high-altitude glaciers will also impact long-term water security in many of Asia's major river basins.

For development organizations that implement projects, these projections create significant challenges. How do you design a road, or bridge, or a flood control project intended to last for decades when you do not know the climate conditions in the years to come?

Predicting future impacts

One response to such uncertainty is to "climate proof" projects. This entails identifying risks to the project, particularly infrastructure, and devising environmentally sound, economically viable and socially acceptable measures to decrease those risks. Ideally, this would involve taking a comprehensive approach to managing climate risks to a project but in practice it has been a challenge.

"There are still relatively few documented examples of this approach being fully and successfully implemented on large, complex and climate-sensitive projects," notes Charles Rodgers, a Senior Environment Specialist with the Asian Development Bank who specializes in climate issues.

More specifically, project officers have used what is sometimes called the "predict-then-act" approach to address the impacts of climate change on infrastructure projects.

This approach acknowledges that previous climate behavior is no longer a reliable basis for the prediction of future conditions and utilizes climate models to predict possible future impacts due to climate change.

The challenge for project designers is that although the science regarding global climate change has progressed significantly in recent years, the application of model projections to specific areas is much less reliable. In other words, the world is warming but how does that affect the specific river basin where an irrigation project is being designed?

"There is a real risk that specific models may not be telling the correct version of the future climate story, at least on a regional basis," said Mr. Rodgers. "What if the demands placed on models exceed the capabilities of those models to deliver, or are simply mis-matched with model capabilities?"

For instance, an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms is predicted on a global scale due to climate change but climate models are not able to provide specific guidance on how this will impact specific infrastructure projects.

This is also the case with sea level rise, which appears to be a scientific certainty on a global scale, but which can be difficult to project for a particular region.

Methods

To address this uncertainty, project designers have come up with climate proofing methods sometimes referred to as "robust adaptation," which focus on minimizing regret by building maximum flexibility within the project framework to prepare for climate change. Rather than attempting to predict the specific impact of climate change on a project, the designer attempts to make the project as climate resilient as possible - regardless of the specific prediction.

"The robust approach focuses on the project itself and critical performance thresholds rather than on predictions of what will take place," said Mr. Rodgers.

The robust approach is promising, said Mr. Rodgers, but it is also in the early stages of development.

"A relatively few large, complex and climate-sensitive projects have rigorously employed and documented the use of robust approaches to adaptation," he said. "But the number is growing."