Airports, Ports and Climate Change (II)

Airports, Ports, and Climate Change (part 2)
December 2019

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This is the second in a two-part Infrastructure Ideas series on the effects of climate change on infrastructure transport facilities, following part 1 on airports. This post will survey climate change impacts on ports around the world.

Over 3700 maritime ports and their supply chains enable global and local commerce, helping the over 90% of the world’s freight that moves by sea. Ships make on average some 3 million landings a year at ports around the world. One study found that ports and ships account for as much as one-quarter of the GDP of the United States, contributing over $5 trillion to the US economy alone. All of these ports are, by definition (leaving out “dry ports” which have their own importance in logistics chains) located by water. As climate change accelerates, and waters rise, all of these ports will be affected by a range of consequences, some of them expensive.

The EU’s Joint Research Center projects that by 2030 64% of all seaports are expected to be inundated by sea level rise, due to the combined effects of tides, waves, and storm surges. The number of ports that face the risk of inundation in 2080 is expected to increase further by 80% to 2080. While various climate change projections may have considerable uncertainty, depending on the combination of how much higher carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations get (uncertain because possible future emission trajectories are all over the place) and of feedback loops (on which key pieces of the science remain untested), two things are very clear: (1) sea levels will rise, and (2) they will rise more in some places than others. In Europe, it is forecast that the North Sea (where 15% of total world cargo is handled), the Western part of the Baltic Sea, and parts of the British and French Atlantic coasts will see double the sea level rise of most of the rest Europe’s coastline. In the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, impacts from extreme high sea level are expected to be significantly milder, but also to occur more frequently. One analysis projects that once-in-a-century “extreme sea levels” will on average occur approximately every 11 years by 2050, and every 3 and 1 year by 2100 under more extreme warming scenarios. The analysis adds that “some regions are projected to experience an even higher increase in the frequency of occurrence of extreme events, most notably along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, where the present day 100-year ESL is projected to occur several times a year.”

One might superficially think that rising water levels would, for seaports, be a matter of indifference, or even a plus. As opposed to airports, where airplanes affected by inundation become useless, ports are home to ships which float on top of the water – no matter how high the water is. Dredging might become less of a concern in some ports, and other ports may become less dependent on high tides for larger cargo ships to enter. But while it is no doubt true that climate change impacts will be more severe for airports than for ports, they will not be absent for port owners and operators. A 2011 case study published by the International Finance Corporation, on a port in Colombia, summarized well the issues, of which the two biggest are the storage and movement of goods, and multimodal connectivity inland from the port. Ships can keep floating as the waters rise, but containers of goods cannot. Spoilage risk can be expected to affect revenues in particular for ports handling grains and other perishables. The fairly small number of transshipment ports may not worry too much about inland connectivity, but the large majority of operators will be need to be concerned about impacts of high waters on infrastructure which they do not control – roads, and sometimes rail lines – in and out of the port to other parts of their region. A review of risks to Long Beach Port, one of the busiest in the world, notes that “in the next few decades, access roads could be covered in water; rail lines, either from heat or from ocean water inundation, would be unusable; electrified infrastructure such as cranes could stop working. The piers themselves, particularly older piers in the center of the sprawling 3,000-acre Long Beach complex, would be swallowed by sea and flood water, leaving them inaccessible to trains and trucks”. As the Colombia study also notes in passing, ports in developing and emerging markets may often also have unpaved areas which can be damaged more severely by inundations.

In this context, many ports face both pressure to participate in mitigation/ decarbonization efforts, and pressure to think ahead about adaptation. On mitigation, ome larger ports have had the luxury of trying to get on the front foot in the public debate. Seven ports — Hamburg, Barcelona, Antwerp, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Vancouver and Rotterdam – announced in September 2018 the creation of a “World Ports Climate Action Program,” aimed at working together to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions from maritime transport. Their program has five action areas:

1. Increase efficiency of supply chains using digital tools.
2. Advance policy approaches aimed at reducing emissions within larger geographical areas.
3. Accelerate development of in-port renewable power-to-ship solutions.
4. Accelerate the development of commercially viable sustainable low-carbon fuels for maritime transport and infrastructure for electrification of ship propulsion systems.
5. Accelerate efforts to fully decarbonize cargo-handling facilities in ports.

The Port of Oslo last month announced a 17-point climate-action plan, with the goal of becoming the world’s first zero-emissions port. The port produces 55,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions a year. By 2030, the port aims to make an 85% reduction in its emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. The plan includes refitting ferry boats, implementing a low-carbon contracting process, and installing shore power, which would allow boats to cut their engines and plug into the grid when docked. Shore power can also power equipment like cranes, which normally run on diesel. Oslo incentivizes replacement of diesel with lower port fees and electricity costs to reward compliant ships, and by revising contracting processes to command terminal builders and shipping companies to obey low-emission rules. Rotterdam, which is Europe’s biggest port, is using zero-emission port equipment, while two months ago the Port of Los Angeles unveiled two new battery-electric top loaders.

Oslo’s plan is also of specific interest in that Oslo is a major port for ferries running across the Baltic straights; these ferries are estimated to be responsible for half the port’s emissions, a function of their frequency. Oslo has awarded a contract to Norled to electrify existing passenger ships; Norled delivered the first electric refit in September, and the ship now has the equivalent of 20 Tesla batteries on board. In a further sign of growing interest toward electrification among the industry, last month Washington State Ferries, which runs the second-largest ferry system in the world, announced it is switching from diesel to batteries. Washington State Ferries carry 25 million people a year across Puget Sound, and its annual fuel consumption is on par with that of a midsize airline, making it the state’s biggest diesel polluter. The ferry operator’s electrification program will start with the three most polluting vessels, which consume 5 million gallons of fuel a year between them; switching the three ships to fully electric operations would cut emissions by an estimated 48,000 metric tons of CO2 a year, the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road. This will also require a major quayside electrification effort. Canada’s British Columbia Ferry Services, another major operator, moved to LNG some time ago and is now eyeing electrification of its fleet. This August also saw the launch of the world’s largest all-electric ferry to date, a 200-passenger, 30-car carrying vessel in Denmark, while in July the U.K. government announced that all new ships would have to be equipped with zero-emission technology.

On adaptation, almost all ports will need to take some sort of action to deal with rising waters, and more frequent extreme weather events bringing flooding. Key areas will be in protecting goods being stored and moved within ports, and inland transport connections. So far, the approach being taken by most ports is the obvious one – trying to keep water out of where it’s not wanted, and European ports are in the forefront. Rotterdam, Amsterdam and London are known to be protected against a 1 in 1000-year event, or at least what has been thought of as 1 in 1000-year events. Rotterdam’s measures are of the highest level globally, consisting of two of the largest storm surge barriers in the world. London’s flood barrier is also among the biggest in the world. These kinds of defenses do not come cheap. According to a recent study by consultancy Asia Research and Engagement (ARE), upgrading some of the 50 largest ports in the Asia-Pacific region to help cope with the effects of climate chance could cost up to $49 billion.

Future port adaptation measures are likely to be far more extensive than those implemented to date, and to require more varied technical approaches. Chances are pretty good, as estimates of how much and how soon sea levels will rise keep getting ratcheted up, that current forecast numbers for seawall-type protections will escalate quickly – as in the example of San Francisco’s barrier, whose projected cost jumped in a few years from $50m to over $500m. Chances are also pretty good that other complementary solutions will be needed, along the lines of major drainage improvements and ways to elevate storage facilities. Unless some radical positive change takes place, rising sea levels are likely to inexorably make seawalls regularly obsolete unless they too keep getting (expensively) raised, and solutions that focus more on the parts of ports that have to keep dry make be most cost-effective. Finally, chances are pretty good that new kinds of private-public partnerships for adaptation will be needed. Inland connecting infrastructure is more often owned by local governments that port operations are, and those governments struggle more than port operators to find revenues with which to fund raising and hardening that connecting infrastructure. Ports may find they need to help governments put in place the improvements to connecting infrastructure, without which ports will find their revenue streams drying up – all puns intended.

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