Guest Column | January 10, 2019

Addressing Impacts Of Climate Change At The Local Level: Mitigate Or Adapt?

By Art Umble, Global Wastewater Practice Leader for Stantec Consulting


The unknowns around climate change might curtail proper investment and preparation — unless your resiliency efforts offer more than just resiliency.

Water and wastewater professionals are increasingly aware of the impacts climate change is posing on utilities and the difficult challenges it creates for decision-making. Perhaps most challenging are the decisions involving measures for adaptation and/or mitigation. Without doubt, the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) update report raises serious concerns around the negative impacts our environment is already experiencing from the changing climate, and near-and long-term projections of the severity of these impacts are not encouraging. The dilemma facing society today is where the most benefit can be attained from investments made to address climate change.

The dilemma facing society today is where the most benefit can be attained from investments made to address climate change.

On the one hand, major expenditures are appropriate for reinforcing our infrastructure to protect against environmental consequences already advancing due to our warming climate. Adaptation focuses on strengthening our defenses in the short term — i.e., the next several decades — to reduce vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change, and communities are justified in investing in these elements. In some ways, adaptation is a more reactive approach to climate change. Unfortunately, adaptation does little to address actual causes of those impacts.

On the other hand, should investments be made instead into measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thus curtailing the negative consequences of climate change over the much longer term? This is the focus of mitigation and seems to be a more proactive approach. The reality is that while climate change is a global issue, its effects are experienced at the local scale, and adaptation action must be immediate, even if the benefits may only be for a short term. Adaptation measures include infrastructure that can counter extreme weather events, reduced water availability, poorer water quality, submerging coastlines, eroding lands, forest fires, etc. Because national and international efforts to implement mitigation measures continue to languish, local governments, planning agencies, and utilities have little choice but to focus on adaptation using their own resources.

Perhaps the most pragmatic approach to addressing the risks associated with implementing adaptation measures is to engage local stakeholders in scenario planning.

But adaptation is difficult because the severity and timing of impacts are uncertain. No one can predict when a critical threshold may occur, beyond which an adaptive measure is too late and ineffective. Thus, utilities face huge decision risks on which measures to invest in and in what sequence to implement them. Risks associated with the burdens that the required capital expenditures place on local economies are obvious. Less obvious are risks linked to societal aspects. These have to do with the level and quality of protective service that the measures provide to all populations within the local communities, but particularly those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate. How can these risks be reduced and managed?

“No Regret” Solutions

Perhaps the most pragmatic approach to addressing the risks associated with implementing adaptation measures is to engage local stakeholders in scenario planning. This examines varying degrees of local impact severity that result from gradations of global climate change (i.e., incremental increases in global temperature).

Each scenario generates one or more adaptation measures that would be necessary and appropriate to provide an optimal level of service to all populations affected. The key is to identify those measures that result in “no regret” investment. In other words, only those measures that can provide benefits to a community that address more than just the impacts of a changing climate should be advanced. In this way, if the effects of a climate impact turn out to be less or different than anticipated or occur at a time much later than expected, the measure must still bring value to the community.

For example, a community may determine that the impact of extreme wet weather events is potentially severe enough by 2030 that it warrants significant investment in flood protection infrastructure beginning now. The “no regret” solution would be to design into the system facets that allow the community at large to use that infrastructure to enhance community life by integrating elements such as public parks and open spaces, wetlands and habitats, centers for public education on environment, and others, while still maintaining the functionality of the adaptation measure.

Or perhaps a local utility determines it is vulnerable to declining quality in its drinking water supply source because of one or more climate change impact scenarios over the next two decades. This points to significant immediate capital investments in advanced water treatment infrastructure. The difficulty is in knowing what level of treatment may ultimately be required. A “no regret” solution could include a parallel and shared investment with the wastewater utility whereby water recovery and reuse technology is installed at the local or regional water resource recovery facility. As such, the reuse water can serve as a reliable water-quality source that can continuously augment the water supply. This would minimize the extent of required investment in water treatment improvements necessary for purifying the declining quality of the primary source of supply. If it turns out that primary source quality does not experience the degree of quality decline anticipated, the reuse water remains a valuable, added beneficial resource for the community.

A word of caution, however. It is easy to underestimate the complexity of implementing an adaptation measure. Too often a measure’s implementation is myopically viewed merely as a technical problem, while in fact it is greatly influenced by the socioeconomic circumstances of the local community. Such oversight results in unrealistic expectations about what the adaptation measure should truly achieve.

The technical, social, and economic challenges posed by our changing global climate patterns are, without doubt, daunting. There is no argument that implementing national and international initiatives designed to make drastic cuts in carbon emissions is a proactive and appropriate long-range global strategy for mitigating the impacts of a changing climate. Indeed, we must champion policies that promote mitigation of impacts in the long term. Unfortunately, waiting for global national and international strategies for curtailing emissions to be in place before we act is neither wise nor pragmatic because many impacts are in play already today and being directly experienced at regional and local levels. This reality dictates our decisions moving forward. Investments at the local utility level must focus on adaptation measures that secure service provisions to our local populations, but at the same time must provide additional benefits beyond just climate impacts. No measure taken should ever be regretted.

About The Author

Art K. Umble, Ph.D., PE, BCEE, F.WEF, M.ASCE, leads the Global Wastewater Practice for Stantec Consulting, focusing on municipal and industrial wastewater treatment technologies. He provides technical analysis and support to design teams for new and rehabilitated wastewater treatment plants, with an emphasis on nutrient removal and recovery facilities, process optimization for treatment capacity and energy management, wet weather treatment, solids processing and disposal facilities, disinfection systems, reuse, and emerging contaminant removal technology. In addition to consulting, Dr. Umble’s experience includes university teaching and managing a publicly owned water and wastewater utility.