Extreme weather phenomena and climate change challenge our transport system – part 3

In the third part of the blog series, we continue going through OECD’s recommendations, having reached the last ones, numbers 7 to 9. We conclude by estimating the Finnish transport system from the viewpoint of climate risks and extreme weather risks. Recommendations 1–3 are discussed here and 4–6 here.

At the turn of the year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) International Transport Forum (ITF) published a research report on the challenges posed by extreme weather phenomena and climate change to the transport system, particularly the transport infrastructure. The report Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers lists recommendations for OECD Member Countries on minimising adverse effects. VTT is one of the report’s main authors.

7: Re-evaluate: are there infrastructures that are redundant or less useful?

When one part of a network fails, an old part of the network that has perhaps previously been considered redundant or less useful may suddenly turn out to be quite usable. Let us use an old bridge as an example. If a new bridge is built next to the old one, and its service ability drops for one reason or another, due to such a reason as extreme weather phenomenon or an accident, the old bridge may increase in importance beyond all recognition.

Under certain circumstances, an old and useless part of a transport network may be a useful emergency passage or an alternative route e.g. for light traffic.

8: Traditional cost-benefit analysis is not sufficient for appraising the profitability of transport projects

A traditional cost-benefit analysis does not observe the increased extreme weather risks and climate risks to a sufficient degree. Forecasting the future constitutes a specific risk factor (because the future is always uncertain!). In transport projects, the appraisal is made for a time horizon of 30–50 years ahead, and such a horizon already includes major climate change risks. However, we need to be able to assess and monetise such risks to ensure that we make as wise project and investment decisions as possible for now and with a view to the future in particular.

Therefore, project evaluations and cost-benefit analyses must be developed to take better account of the changed “risk landscape”. The same advice applies to almost all other long-term investment activities as well.

Already in the course of the EWENT (Extreme weather impacts on European networks of transport) project, the European Investment Bank started to develop its own project evaluation system, and today climate risks are observed in EIB project evaluations.

9: Develop decision-support tools and methods for the new age of uncertain future

Advanced and often a little hard-to-understand decision-support methods, such as real-options and multi-criteria analyses are excellent decision tools in spite of the complicated mathematics involved, as long as they are applied correctly and the users understand the nature, the framework conditions and the limitations of the tool. Real-options analysis is particularly well suited for the appraisal of new investments – this involves making significant decisions that are difficult to reverse and that you need to live with for a long time. Transport infrastructure projects are typical examples of such decisions. Real-options analysis can be used, for example, for monetising “flexibility” (keeping different options open) and postponement of a decision (when the future is uncertain, it may be wise to wait…). In other words, sometimes it may be sensible to update old infrastructure and postpone large investments, when there are major uncertainty factors involved.

Multi-criteria analysis methods can be applied, for example, for selecting investments, projects and strategies in such a manner that enables finding options that function sufficiently well in most of the selected scenarios – even if the selected option was not the best in any of them. In game theory, this is referred to as minimising the possible losses instead of trying to maximise the gains.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Finnish transport system in the light of extreme weather risks

In the broad sense, the Finnish transport system consists of the infrastructure, as well as the vehicles using the infrastructure, the transport information infrastructure, transport system operators (administration, companies, transport operators, passengers), and the operating and steering systems associated with all of the above. This is in fact a genuine “meta system”, a system of systems.

The physical modes of transport – road, rail, water and airborne transport systems – differ significantly from each other in terms of technology, utilisation rate and properties affecting their resilience. Furthermore, each physical infrastructure is supported by subsystems supplementing it, such as drainage systems, lighting, signs and intelligent transport applications (e.g. changing signals, information systems), not to mention the vehicles, terminals, railway yards and stations. Therefore, the transport system consists of complex subsystems, the management of which requires not only a holistic approach, but also an immense amount of concrete hands-on work varying from managerial strategy drafting to snow-plowing.

Transport system and elements affecting its resilience.

Resilience can be most efficiently and cost-effectively affected when transport systems are in their planning stages. As a rule, any solutions added at later stages, no matter how necessary, are in relative terms more expensive and less efficient. Therefore, the primary starting point for ensuring a functional operation system lies in the planning of transport systems and land use.

Opportunities to influence and expenses required for improved resilience
(adapted from Leviäkangas & Michaelides, 2014).

The Finnish transport system is relatively complete, comprehensive and functional, and the share of major network investments of the overall expenses of the system is relatively low. The use and maintenance of the existing infrastructure constitute the biggest expense items over the life-cycle of the asset. Therefore, there is only a limited amount of methods available for improving resilience once the infrastructure asset is put in its place. Efforts can still be made by focusing on preventive and enhanced maintenance strategies.

Some threats to the resilience of the transport system are associated with the subsystems supporting the physical infrastructure, such as serious disturbances in the power supply, communications and information systems (cyber threats), transport logistics and security of supply; increasingly severe and exceptional extreme weather phenomena; and, to a certain degree, crime that threatens societal order (e.g. terrorism) as well. It is necessary to draw up risk management strategies, plans and guidelines also for these threats. It is equally important to increase the resource readiness by making sure that maintenance and removal fleets and manpower are at disposal once the adverse event hits.

Report:

ITF (2016) Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers, ITF Research Reports, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789282108079-en

The report can be downloaded at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/transport/adapting-transport-to-climate-change-and-extreme-weather_9789282108079-en;jsessionid=5o0iqml8ohiq9.x-oecd-live-03

EWENT project: http://ewent.vtt.fi/index.htm

Sources:

Leviäkangas, P. & Aapaoja, A. (2015) Resilienssin käsite ja operationalisointi – case liikennejärjestelmä. Kunnallistieteellinen aikakauskirja 1/2015. (In Finnish.)

Leviäkangas, P. & Michaelides, S. (2014) Transport system management under extreme weather risks: views to project appraisal, asset value protection and risk-aware system management. Natural Hazards, Vol. 72, No. 1, pp. 263–286.

Pekka Leviäkangas VTT

Pekka Leviäkangas, Principal Scientist

Aki Aapaoja VTT

Aki Aapaoja, Research Scientist

Are CCU and the carbon reuse economy part of the solution?

Why does carbon – one of the most common elements in the universe – play such a critical role in modern society? Unfortunately, its use is also associated with climate change, the greatest problem of our time.

As concepts, CCU or the capture and utilisation of carbon, and the related carbon reuse economy, are not simple or necessarily easy to grasp. CCU, a technological term used in a number of contexts, is being proposed as a solution to a range of needs.

Due to its range of applications, CCU has many champions and seems to represent many things, from the world’s salvation from climate change to new business opportunities and carbon sources. Such multiplicity also leads to confusion and misconceptions about the kinds of impacts, good or bad, which the technology’s application may have. To shed light on the issue, in this blog we try to explain what CCU and the carbon reuse economy are all about. Why should we be interested in them and how might they serve key industrial sectors in Finland, for example?

What is at stake?

CCU, or carbon capture and utilisation, refers to the separation of carbon dioxide for instance from flue gases to prevent CO2’s release into the atmosphere where it would accelerate climate change combined with use of captured carbon dioxide either as such, or as a source of carbon in other processes.

On the other hand, the carbon reuse economy refers to chemical processes and concepts using either carbon dioxide or other one-carbon molecules – such as carbon monoxide resulting from gasification or methane in biogas – as inputs.

In turn, CCS refers to the capture and storage of carbon dioxide. This could halt the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere caused by the use of fossil raw materials. CCU, on the other hand, will not prove to be a long-term, overall solution if fossil resources continue to be used. It will be more of a technological solution enabling carbon-based processes in a fully sustainable system.

The ongoing energy transition is characterised by sustainability and mitigation of climate change. From this perspective, the assessment of CCU is complicated by the diversity of applications and concepts and the consequent diversity of CCU’s climate impacts, which could be anything ranging from very negative to positive; it all depends on the energy system in which CCU is applied, and the direction and speed of the systems’ transition. According to the laws of thermodynamics, energy is required when using carbon dioxide in any form other than pure carbon dioxide. For the use of carbon dioxide as a raw material to be sustainable, such energy must be produced sustainably. This ties CCU tightly into the greater use of renewable and other emission-free energy, which again highlights the system perspective.

But might there be reasons for recycling carbon dioxide, other than mitigating climate change?

Recovered carbon dioxide (CCU) is already used in many applications, for example as a protective gas or in soft drinks. It is also converted into chemicals such as urea or inorganic carbonates.

As mentioned above, the use of carbon dioxide always requires energy. Hydrogen provides the simplest way of applying energy to carbon dioxide. A key challenge in CCU and the carbon reuse economy lies in the availability of hydrogen produced using affordable, low-carbon energy. Despite the record levels of investment in low-carbon energy across the globe and the anticipated plunge in prices in forthcoming years, sustainably produced hydrogen will be the most powerful brake on CCU investments. As a result, carbon reuse economy processes can be divided into three categories according to their need for hydrogen:

  1. processes that do not require hydrogen;
  2. hybrid processes with a limited need for hydrogen and which can use other C1 gases in addition to carbon dioxide;
  3. processes with a significant need for hydrogen.

Processes with no requirement for hydrogen include various mineral processes for the production of inorganic carbonates. For example, VTT is studying the recovery of carbon dioxide from lime kilns and its use in the production of pure precipitated calcium carbonate. Certain organic special and fine chemicals can also be made from carbon dioxide, without using hydrogen. Hybrid processes can be used alongside biomass gasification processes, for example. The key usable components in gas from gasification are carbon monoxide and hydrogen.  In addition, significant amounts of carbon dioxide are generated as a by-product, which can be converted into fuel or chemicals by using an external hydrogen source.

A range of possibilities is associated with hydrogen-based carbon dioxide conversion processes. Such possibilities tend to be based on chemical catalysis, or they are biochemical. The related processes tend to result initially in C1 intermediate products, such as methane or methanol, which can be used as a mediator and fuel, or as an intermediate product for producing other fuels and chemicals.   Speciality chemicals such as acrylic acid, whose production is currently being studied by VTT, can also be directly produced via biochemical processes. Based on Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, catalytic routes can lead to the production of alkanes and alkenes instead of C1 compounds. Alkanes are potential fuel components, whereas alkenes are suitable for the production of a wide variety of chemicals.

While CCU and the carbon reuse economy are clearly technologies that would help enable a sustainable society, they are not, alone, solutions to climate change.

However, the related technologies and products could be a new growth area for Finnish industry and exports. In the short term, the greatest potential lies in technologies based on the utilisation of carbon dioxide without hydrogen, or with a limited need for it. However, as low-energy hydrogen production proliferates, hydrogen-intensive technologies will also be adopted.

CCU requires carbon dioxide as well as hydrogen sources. In the first phase, these could be major fossil-fuel-based emission sources, such as steel mills or oil refineries. However, as decarbonisation progresses, there will be a progressive transition to bio-based emission sources, such as the wood processing industry or energy production from biomass. In the case of bio-based CO2 sources, we could in some casesachieve net carbon removal from the atmosphere (bio-CCU).

The most expensive alternative would be carbon dioxide recovery from the air, but this is also a possible future option. VTT and the Lappeenranta University of Technology are currently demonstrating this concept via the Soletair project funded by Tekes. The project combines carbon dioxide captured from the air with hydrogen produced using renewable electricity; hydrocarbons suitable as fuels are obtained from these, using Fischer-Tropsch technology. The entire system consists of three production containers and a demo of their simultaneous use has been under way in Lappeenranta since June 2017.

Tell us what you think of the carbon reuse economy and CCU!

CCU is often justified on the basis of its positive effects on climate change, but other drivers might include the use of new, renewable energy as a raw material (instead of fossil fuels) in carbon-based processes, i.e., so-called indirect electrification, or simply the need for carbon dioxide in certain processes or products. Climate driver will dominate the long-term energy system change. However, favourable economic conditions for this must be in place, if companies and investors are to implement broad change. At the moment, this means incentives based on the costs of externalities (climate policy, for example) or the long-term risk management of investments.

We have tried to outline these issues in the attached discussion paper. Can you think of any aspects or applications which we have failed to account for in this?

As we produce scientific data and figures in support of the ideas outlined in this document, we would be delighted to see plenty of feedback to this paper from everyone (perhaps in the comments section below).

Antti Arasto VTT

Antti Arasto, Research Manager
Twitter: @ArastoAntti

Juha Lehtonen VTT

Juha Lehtonen, Research Professor

Beware of greenwash! Reliable indicators exist for sustainable innovations

Now, at the beginning of Sustainable Development Week, is the ideal time to recount how we can best ensure the sustainability of innovations and projects. Companies can unintentionally slide into greenwashing which, in today’s business environment, can jeopardise an entire innovation breakthrough. Scientifically approved methods of assessing sustainability help firms to communicate transparently on environmental impacts.

The rise in temperatures is forecast to accelerate most in the northern hemisphere’s land areas during winter. According to some estimates, current emission trends will lead to warming by up to six degrees in Helsinki. Few Finns are enthused by a vision which sees us ‘enjoying’ temperatures hovering around zero from October to May. Only the light levels will distinguish April from December. And this is the most minor of issues compared to the effects of global warming on world food production, water sufficiency, the distribution of insects and plants, health-related problems and other issues related to extreme phenomena.

The challenge is huge but action is being taken

The mitigation of greenhouse gases and taking other action promoting sustainable development are now among the key strategic objectives of more and more states and companies. A total of 17 international objectives are listed in the UN’s sustainable development action plan for Agenda 2030. These goals include global themes such as clean water and sustainable production. The aim is to limit the global average temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees, in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.

During European Sustainable Development Week, we will explore the theme of the aforementioned Agenda 2030. Finland is implementing the programme in a number of ways. You can make your own commitment to take action via the Prime Minister’s Office, and challenge others to do so.

Companies still ahead of governments in taking practical actions

Innovation and risk-taking are more effective than regulation. Change is accelerating via the circular economy, cleantech and the bio economy, in which VTT is playing a major role as a developer of solutions. However, it is easy to be misled, since not all businesses that increase recycling or use biomaterials are sustainable. The processing of side and waste streams for reuse or the manufacture of biomaterials can require complex and energy-consuming processes, energy-intensive or harmful chemicals, or long transportations, and the availability of raw materials is not always guaranteed. A growing group of stakeholders, including national leaders, financiers and corporate customers are becoming more interested in environmental and social impacts alongside economic issues.

How is sustainability measured?

Science-based indicators are needed when assessing and communicating on the real impact of products and business models. These indicators include life cycle and system-based methods of measuring environmental impacts, such as LCA (life cycle assessment), which examines the overall effects. This approach ensures that sub optimisation does not lead to the shifting of problems from one part of the value chain to another, or exchanging them for others. It also enables us to communicate transparently on the impacts and avoid greenwashing.

LCA is already widely required in product development and communications. The next Horizon PPP-SPIRE call demands the transparent sustainability assessment for all projects, based on life cycle thinking and the most standardised methods possible. The European Commission is preparing an LCA-based guide for calculating product environmental footprints, or PEFs, in order to create an internal market for green products. The Commission recommends the future use of the footprint when measuring the environmental impact of products and in corporate communications.

Companies using LCA in product development will benefit at the customer interface, where responsibility has become a key issue and knowledge of the entire supply chain is important. For example, such companies find it easier to participate in the newest way of demonstrating corporate responsibility, the Science Based Target (SBT) initiative, and to define emission reductions in their operations accordingly. Targets under the SBT initiative are based on the emission reductions set by the Paris Convention on Climate Change and require consideration of the entire value chain. Almost 300 companies are committed.

Handprint as well as footprint

A range of indicators are needed for different situations and industries, to ensure that account is taken of the key aspects of sustainability. For over 20 years, VTT’s experts have been pioneers in developing LCA-based assessment methods and indicators. These methods are being developed further as information and the need for it increases. For example, we are launching a so-called handprint alongside various kinds of footprint. Due to their manufacturing processes, all products have an impact on the environment, i.e., a footprint, which should be minimised. In addition, many products can be used to reduce the environmental load elsewhere (e.g., water treatment chemicals), in which case the product also has a positive environmental impact. To enable the measurement and communication of such impacts, VTT has begun a Tekes development project to define an environmental handprint.

We are applying sustainability assessment methods to evaluating solutions at the product development stage, as well as finished products and their development potential. We will be delighted to help you if you are seeking the right indicators and intend to refine them for a clearer view of sustainable development.

Further reading:

Tiina Pajula VTT

Tiina Pajula
Principal Scientist

Extreme weather phenomena and climate change challenge our transport system – part 2

Principal Scientist Pekka Leviäkangas and Senior Scientist Riitta Molarius are presenting the OECD publication’s key recommendations in a series of blog articles this spring. In this, the second part, they sum up preparedness plans for ensuring a functioning transport system, chart the vulnerability of infrastructure assets and emphasise the importance of systemic approaches. Read the first part here.

At the turn of the year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) International Transport Forum (ITF) published a research report on the challenges posed by extreme weather phenomena and climate change to the transport system, particularly the transport infrastructure. The report Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers lists recommendations for OECD Member Countries on minimising adverse effects.

VTT is one of the report’s main authors. In this second blog post, we discuss the recommendations further, focussing on recommendations 4–6.

4: Account for the temporary unavailability of transport systems in service continuity plans

Extreme weather events can disrupt connections, interrupt traffic and adversely affect operations in various ways – even if weather phenomena are not at their most extreme. In such cases, an organisation’s preparedness to respond is the key to managing the situation and keeping damage to a minimum.

Various tools are available to public authorities and companies, including in the form of standards such as the ISO 22301 Societal security – Business continuity management systems standard. This standard is primarily designed for business performance management of companies, but it in fact works well also for public organisations, once the word ‘business’ is put in parentheses. The standard will help organisations to protect themselves from disruptive events by means such as reducing their likelihood, preparing for them, or enabling rapid recovery. The standard focuses on information exchange, the allocation of duties and cooperation between parties, by defining criteria for effective contingency management, planning and operations. Major operational improvements can be made and capacity for managing exceptional situations built by going through the checklists in the standard. The standard, which is general in nature, helps to prepare for various disruptions other than just extreme weather events.

Information exchange, planning and operational systems play a key role in organisational contingency planning. All of these, in turn, are partly relying on technological tools. A wide range of such tools is available. The challenge lies in how to incorporate technology in organisational and institutional processes, to prevent them from being paper tigers that lack concrete, practical tools. A strong services continuity plan will support an organisation in managing disruptive scenarios by providing solutions and models for re-routing transportation or asset management recovery plans, for example.

Euroopan ilmastoalueiden luokittelu sään ääri-ilmiöiden mukaan

Figure 1. Classification of European climate regions based on adverse and extreme phenomena and projected trends in the frequency of adverse and extreme phenomena by the 2050s (Leviäkangas & Saarikivi, 2012, EWENT D6).

5: Assess the vulnerability of transport infrastructure assets

Vulnerability is challenging to define whether one tries to do it in theoretical or practical terms. However, the basic idea is to identify the probability that threatening events will occur, their domino and distributional effects, and ‘weak links’, i.e. the structures and locations that are most exposed, vulnerable and most susceptible to extreme weather-related stress. Merely summing up these factors provides a preliminary idea of vulnerability.

The EWENT project, which focused on extreme weather impacts, defined vulnerability as follows (Molarius et al. 2014):

Weather equation

The above equation is useful because it defines the components of vulnerability, which in the best case facilitates the concept’s operationalisation into measurable set of variables.

For instance, in the aforementioned EWENT project a risk index for main routes in Finland was calculated using the above formula as a function of vulnerability and risk (Figure 2).

Suomen pääliikenneväylien haavoittuvuusindeksi sään ääri-ilmiöitä kohtaan

Figure 2. The vulnerability index for extreme weather phenomena for main transport routes in Finland. The higher the numerical value, the more vulnerable the transport route. The first figure refers to vulnerability to accidents, the second describes infrastructure vulnerability and the third delays in transport. The routes included are roads, railways (rail), sea passages (short sea), air transport (aviation) and inland water transport (IWT). Blue = passenger index, red = freight index.

The transport system can be further divided into subsystems (modes of transport, their infrastructures, rolling stock, organisations, services), making the complex system block more manageable. It is simpler and more understandable to assess the vulnerability and risks of these elements than to process the system as a whole. In a way, vulnerability can be considered as the inverse value of resilience, the ability to resist and recover.

Unless we invest in maintaining our transport system, our ageing infrastructure will accumulate an increasing investment deficit and become more vulnerable, whilst extreme weather phenomena become more common. In addition to infrastructure’s condition itself, factors influencing the system’s vulnerability include traffic volumes (the more traffic, the more negative aggregate effects), and general economic capacity (the more economic resources, the better you are able to cope with adverse impacts).

6: Focus on transport system resilience, not just infrastructure

The construction and maintenance of a robust and invulnerable infrastructure pays dividends. Other elements of a resilient system include flexibility, responsiveness, adaptation and fast recovery. Less attention has perhaps been paid to these elements than they deserve. In thick snow, do snowploughs start moving fast enough and is there enough fleet and equipment? When services of this type are outsourced, this may be a purely contractual issue, which means that e.g. public procurements can play a role in resilience. Or, has sufficient attention been paid to proactive maintenance in infrastructure maintenance contracts, or has the lowest bidder been selected? As climate warming proceeds and extreme weather becomes more frequent, have we renewed our maintenance fleet and service contracts accordingly, or have we simply begun to wait for snowless winters and iceless routes?

Cities play a key role  

Most transport needs arise in cities. Both the population (in 2015, almost 86% of the Finnish population lived in cities) and high-value production and services are concentrated in cities. Urban transport system resilience has most impact on the everyday lives of citizens.

When the tram fails, take a bus, or vice versa. The construction, maintenance and servicing of bicycle routes not only serves to keep people fit or supports a nice way of moving around, it plays a more important role in ensuring the functionality of the entire transport system. Access to cities for residents of sparsely populated areas can be supported by constructing connective infrastructure (i.e. parking areas, connecting stations) at public transport nodes on the outer reaches of core areas. As a rule of thumb, diversity is a strength in systemic resilience, which is why it should always be on the checklist of urban planners. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to diversity, because to be market attractive, public transport should be able to serve its customers at the time of need. A public transport network, that is sufficiently dense and high-capacity increases, in turn, the risk of buses or trams running empty, thus contributing to higher emissions. Enhancing flexibility may require a re-evaluation of the public transport system, shifting the emphasis from economies of scale (which works sometimes, but not always) to a more agile and flexible system. How about small, demand-responsive electric buses?

In the next blog post, we will discuss the final three recommendations of the OECD’s publication and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Finnish transport system.

Pekka Leviäkangas VTT

Pekka Leviäkangas, Principal Scientist

Riitta Molarius VTT

Riitta Molarius, Senior Scientist

Read more:

ITF (2016), Adapting Transport to Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Implications for Infrastructure Owners and Network Managers, ITF Research Reports, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789282108079-en

The report can be downloaded at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/transport/adapting-transport-to-climate-change-and-extreme-weather_9789282108079-en;jsessionid=5o0iqml8ohiq9.x-oecd-live-03

The EWENT project: http://ewent.vtt.fi/index.htm

Leviäkangas P & Saarikivi P 2012: D6: European Extreme Weather Risk Management – Needs, Opportunitites, Costs and Recommendations. http://ewent.vtt.fi/Deliverables/D6/Ewent_D6_SummaryReport_V07.pdf

VTT Technology 43: Weather hazards and vulnerabilities for the European transport system – a risk panorama. http://www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/technology/2012/T43.pdf