As Melbourne labours through its second heatwave this month, it is becoming clear that these events take a heavy toll. Health, energy consumption, transport, infrastructure, agriculture and other natural resources are all affected.
What is also clear is that the costs will continue to mount. The most prudent way to stop them escalating beyond our control is to spend money up front to ensure our cities and communities can withstand increasing temperatures. Put simply, we need to be more proactive, and less reactive, when adapting to climate change.
Over the past decade, the Victorian Government has spent more than A$4 billion on response and recovery to bushfires, floods, droughts and heatwaves. On top of that public money, there is also the private financial cost to industries, communities and individuals – not to mention the emotional and mental impact of these events.
There has to be a better way. We can start by widening our thinking about climate adaptation, to include steps to avoid and prepare for events such as heatwaves, rather than just responding to them.
Climate adaptation is often characterised as an ‘environmental’ problem, and handed over to environment and sustainability officers within governments or businesses. But adaptation is better thought of as a matter of risk management, and as such it requires all parts of organisations to assess the risks and make sure they have robust plans in place to deal with them.
As a case in point, extreme heat events in our cities are the biggest climate-related cause of death. Without investments in adaptation, the risk of heatwaves and the associated loss of life will only rise in the future. Without action to curb greenhouse emissions, by 2070 Victoria is forecast to suffer an average of 21 days a year with temperatures above 35C, compared with the current average of nine.
Combine that with increasing urban density, more hard surfaces and less greenery, and a larger, older and more multicultural population, and the potential impacts from heatwaves start to multiply rapidly.
So how can we adapt? Here are two useful suggestions.
First, it is now well known that increasing ‘green infrastructure’ – street trees, urban parks, green roofs and green walls – and retaining water in cities can significantly reduce heat loads. A 10% increase in green cover could reduce the projected increase in urban temperatures from global warming. To that end, the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy aims to increase tree cover in the city from 22% to 40%. Many other urban councils have similar projects.
But while studying the issue, the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research found that many people did not fully appreciate the benefits of green infrastructure. What is needed is an approach that involves agencies responsible for health, transport, local government and planning.
Health awareness programs can promote related benefits such as improved air quality; planners can reduce the red tape involved in planting street trees; local governments can identify priority neighbourhoods for development, protect existing greenery, and implement water-sensitive urban design.
Increasing green infrastructure will also require the use of private space – one major challenge will be to give private landowners the incentive to keep or install greenery and incorporate vegetation into building design.
Second, we can design train, tram, rail and essential service infrastructure that can stand up to heatwaves, making our cities more resilient for the future. Smarter grid design and use of electricity can mean Victorians have an electricity grid that can bear the strain of peak summer demand. Research is also under way on the design and use of energy-efficient homes that can cope with extreme temperatures while avoiding extreme electricity bills.
These are just two examples of how research is identifying practical measures to manage risk and increase Victoria’s climate resilience. While national investment in research is important, climate impacts vary around the country and are best addressed by state and local governments working in partnership with local researchers. Similar partnerships in the United States have an impressive track record of generating knowledge and crafting solutions that meet the needs of regional and local stakeholders.
Of course, we are not only adapting to a changing climate. Australian cities also need to deal with growing populations and changing patterns of urban development. The growth of our cities presents problems in areas such as transport, food supply, land management and conservation.
We also need to encourage positive behavioural changes through better planning of where we build or changing work practices and use of transport systems during heat waves, rather than just relying on engineering solutions like higher flood barriers or more air conditioners when adapting to our future climate.
Governments don’t have unlimited money to devote to the problem. Adaptation research will help them choose the best strategies to reduce the impact of heatwaves and other climate extremes while avoiding those that don’t help, or which do more harm than good.
At its heart, a good climate adaptation strategy, backed up by useful research, is like a well-chosen insurance policy. As the Deputy Governor of East Jakarta said during the recent floods: “I’d rather spend Rp20 billion to avoid risks than suffer Rp20 trillion in losses”.