Last week, Network Rail – the body in charge of the UK’s rail network – announced that it would spend £2.8bn (€3.25bn) over the next five years to protect its infrastructure from the effects of climate change and extreme weather events.

The company’s engineering and safety director said that railways are affected by flooding in winter and heat in summer more than ever before and the spending is in order to better prepare to mitigate “the worst that mother nature throws at us”.

Network Rail is far from alone in trying to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

Late last year, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), an intergovernmental organisation backed by the United Nations, published a report on the costs countries face from climate damage to infrastructure.

It concluded that the vast majority of the risk to current construction comes from climate change and increasingly extreme weather, with 80% of that risk concentrated in the key power, transport and communication sectors.

The report also put a price on the current global average annual loss of infrastructure at $700bn (€646bn) due to depreciation and wear and tear.

Taking the extra damage from climate change into account, that number rises as high as $845bn (€781bn).

The report also states that 60% of the infrastructure needed globally by 2050 is yet to be built. The cost of that will approach $10trn (€9.24trn) over the next 25 years – at today’s prices.

Taken together, the world will need to spend $845bn a year on repairing infrastructure and $400bn a year on new projects. These numbers are based on no worsening of the current climate damage being done.

Under scenarios where temperatures rise further than the current 1.5c above pre-industrial levels target, the cost will rise considerably. A report by McKinsey in 2022 put the annual cost of achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals and net-zero economies at $2.94trn per year.

The CDRI said the new (and more costly infrastructure) would have to be built in a sustainable way, as repeating the methods of the past would be like “pouring water into a bamboo basket”.

Global tax revenues

Just to put that $2.94trn figure into context, it is equal to about 20% of all global tax revenues collected in 2020.

The cost is huge, but the cost of having failing infrastructure is obviously larger – a government cannot collect any taxes in an economy where people cannot move around, cannot communicate and cannot get electricity.

This spending is just about allowing people to keep the things they are used to having. Working roads, rail, phones and power are all fundamental to a working society.

The other challenge facing the world is the cost of stopping rising temperatures. There can no longer be any argument that climate change is happening. There also is no longer any argument about what is causing it – fundamentally, it is the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

Humans burn fossil fuels for everything from transport to heating to electricity to cooking.

The cost of changing all of that to carbon-neutral sources is estimated to be an annual $2trn, according to the CDRI.

To be clear, this would be in addition to the money required to maintain and develop necessary infrastructure outlined above.

Where Ireland fits in

The next question is, where does Ireland fit into all this?

First of all, the good news. When it comes to producing greenhouse gases (GHG), Ireland is both one of the best performers in Europe – with a GHG per euro of economic activity of 135g/€ – and one of the best performers in reducing that level between 2018 and 2021 – a 37% reduction, according to the EU data published in February of this year (Figure 1).

This means that Ireland as a whole is doing very well when it comes to reducing the amount of climate damage we do as a country. Increased use of renewable power over the coming years should further reduce those emissions.

The bad news comes in how resilient Ireland is when it comes to dealing with the effects of climate change.

There are a couple of things to consider here.

A recent TII report put the time for delivery of a major road project at anywhere between eight and 15 years

One of the major ones in this country when it comes to delivery of large infrastructure projects is the amount of time needed to get from initial plan to completed project.

A recent Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) report put the time for delivery of a major road project at anywhere between eight and 15 years, with actual construction only accounting for less than a third of that time.

The planning process is the clear stumbling block here, with TII even including an allowance for “judicial review” of projects in their projections, under the assumption that any major road project will spend years stuck in the process of getting permission to go ahead.

Smaller projects

On smaller projects, such as solar and wind generation, there are also often considerable delays from planning – the pages of this paper often have news of projects that are delayed, appealed or abandoned during the planning process.

There is also the issue of significant cost overruns. The new children’s hospital is a clear example here, with the project which was initially forecast to come in at around €650m now likely to cost well north of €2bn when it finally opens for patients next year.

Numerous governments have promised to improve the planning laws and have promised to get better at infrastructure delivery on time and on budget.

If the projections in the report from the CDRI are accurate, then they may have little choice about doing both very quickly.