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Infrastructure blog

6 ways Northern Ireland can boost its resilience to climate change

19 April 2024

To make infrastructure more resilient, behaviours must change, but the solutions are already there, writes ICE Fellow Chris Caves.

6 ways Northern Ireland can boost its resilience to climate change
The Connswater Community Greenway in Belfast. Image credit: Paul Lindsay/Chris Hill Photography

Infrastructure supports our communities, economy and essential services.

It connects us with the natural environment, and it connects us as people.

Having resilient infrastructure is increasingly important in the face of extreme weather events caused by climate change.

This is further highlighted by the ever-more interconnected and interdependent nature of our infrastructure networks.

What affects one infrastructure system can cascade across the wider network, leading to significant impacts on fundamental services and the communities they serve.

Northern Ireland’s drive to improve

The Northern Ireland Executive return earlier this year has seen a renewed drive to lead improvements across all the devolved government’s departments.

However, the impacts of ongoing economic challenges are felt here as in many other jurisdictions around the world.

It’s clear that there will be competing priorities and difficult decisions to take when public spending is under continuing pressure.

Within this landscape, it’s vital that investment is prioritised on the understanding that the delivery of national objectives will rely heavily on resilient and quality infrastructure that’s fit for the future.

Furthermore, focusing on infrastructure resilience must go hand-in-hand with efforts to reach net zero carbon emissions targets.

Achieving net zero is the necessary path to limiting the worst impacts of climate change yet to come.

Resilient infrastructure for Northern Ireland

Resources are scarce, so there’s a need for smart thinking – luckily, the expertise exists to support decision-makers.

The ICE has published a new report, titled Resilient infrastructure for Northern Ireland: planning, delivering, operating and maintaining infrastructure for our future.

The report examines infrastructure progress and takes stock of the impacts of extreme weather events.

The report then looks at good practice and makes six recommendations for infrastructure policy makers, stakeholders and professionals:

1. Establish the priorities

Establishing an independent and expert advisory body would be a positive step.

Akin to infrastructure commissions in other jurisdictions, it could help deliver a collective set of priorities that enable Northern Ireland to boost its climate resilience.

Its expertise would also support decision-makers, acting as a guiding mind, in navigating competing priorities and addressing risks and the potential for cascading failures.

This would enable prioritised investment and policy to feed into an infrastructure strategy.

2. Resilience-led decision-making

Infrastructure stakeholders need to develop processes for climate adaptation and resilience quickly and effectively.

Adaptation measures should be planned at sector or system levels, rather than for individual assets (ie specific buildings, roads, etc.).

3. Co-ordinated investment

Climate change and other risks will lead to increased costs, whether through proactive or reactive action. Being prepared will reduce its impacts.

Government departments will need to work together to make the best use of limited public money. The annual funding cycles currently used are simply not fit for purpose.

Co-ordinated and prioritised investment will provide maximum long-term benefits, whether in good times or bad.

4. Embrace our strengths

As one consultee for the report put it, in Northern Ireland, “we all know each other”.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this.

Infrastructure leaders, from clients to engineers, must celebrate and make use of the agility provided by the country’s size and scale.

There’s great potential for collaboration, innovation and co-creation.

5. Harness nature

A nature-positive approach to climate action can bring physical, environmental, and social resilience benefits.

Using green infrastructure in projects can help meet targets for carbon and biodiversity, attract green finance investment and improve public perception.

Policy makers must work in harmony with nature and ensure this is prioritised by those designing and developing projects.

6. Think differently, do differently

Engineers are vital to infrastructure resilience and have a significant role to play in creating and designing the solutions to deliver it.

They should be encouraged to test innovative solutions, deliver best practice and establish a new direction for infrastructure resilience.

If behaviours are to change, engineers must provide the solutions to enable this, from safe spaces for active travel to systemic catchment-scale nature-based interventions for resilience.

The solutions are out there

A clear message throughout the consultations for the report is that there’s opportunity to leverage Northern Ireland’s unique size and scale, with its strength and depth of expertise.

Collaborating more to drive collective action should be well within our grasp.

We all need to do things differently and face our new future - but the solutions are out there.

  • Chris Caves, North Transport Group Leader at Arup