Westconnex postpones planning for climate change until “detailed design” phase

(Ed: The EIS was required to consider the impact of changes in rainfall due to climate change on the project. It was also required to carry out a risk assessment which includes the risks of climate change. We have already published researcher Owen’s Price contribution on Greenhouse Gas Emissions . In this post, Dr Jennifer Hamilton – Adjunct Lecturer, New York University and visiting fellow at UNSW critiques the approach to climate change taken by engineering firm AECOM in its EIS.) 

Strategies to manage climate change risks put off to “detailed planning” stage

The Climate Change Risk Assessment portion of the M5 EIS conjures an image of a durable roadway system withstanding the tests of a changing climate. While the document incorporates climate change into the risk profile of the project, it ultimately recommends very little in the way of direct risk management strategies other than the “consideration” of various potential risks in the next phase of the design process and a few non-binding suggestions as to what these design adaptations might look like (see pages Chapter 25-9 & 25-10).

20151206_West COnnexTrees#2_0006Paperbark trees in Euston Road, Alexandria will be replaced by a widened road to cater for thousands of extra polluting cars and trucks. Photo by Lorrie Graham

It should be said, however, that the EIS does  accepts the science of anthropogenic climate change as stated in the 2013 IPCC reports and uses climate scenario modelling provided by the CSIRO and the BoM to inform its risk assessment.


On the potentially sprawling and unwieldy subject of climate change, this section of the document is careful to define its parameters. It “considers the impact of future climate change on the project, rather than the impact of the project on the future of climate change” (25-1) In other words, this portion of the EIS is concerned with how to construct and maintain the M5 portion of Westconnex so the roads and occupied lands (in particular the Cooks River, Alexandria Canal and Landfill) withstand the projected extreme weather events and sea level rise in a changing climate. For information on the potential impact of the project on Climate Change, the EIS points readers to Chapter 22 and Appendix U, and for the People’s EIS summary of this section click here for Owen Price’s report.

Risks of failing ventilation and gas capture identified

The extended risk assessment in Appendix W outlines all the potential risks identified by the consultants, many of which are deemed low or negligible and thus do not warrant any consideration or action. The risks determined to be medium are listed on pages 25-7 and 25-8. According to the framework, “the assessment would identify and implement adaptation measures to comprehensively address high and extreme risks. The decision to implement adaptation measures for medium risks would also be considered during detailed design“ (25-8) It is worth highlighting that none of the potential climate change risks are determined to be “high” or “extreme”, only “medium”. So although the detailed design will be required to consider all risks determined to be medium, including the potential impacts of sea level rise on the Alexandria Landfill gas capture system, possible failure of ventilation systems due to bushfire or dust storm or increased risk of motor vehicle accidents in extreme weather events, they are not impelled by this assessment to actually change the project at all.

A key question remains: to what extent will these “medium” climate change-related risks to the structural integrity of the roadway and public health and safety actually be considered and incorporated into the design of the roadway given that the life of the road is expected to be 100 years? This remains entirely unclear.

The bigger question raised by this portion of the document is not about the risks posed to the road and its uses by climate change, but rather what is the role of the project within a changing climate? This question is, as was quoted above, explicitly avoided in the climate change risk assessment and the avoidance of which reveals the deeply ideological position of this EIS. The EIS effectively concludes that the road will help to decrease air pollution and thus not contribute to climate change (See Owen), but at the same time it is designed to support the very same systems of trade, employment, production and consumption that are driving climate change. In this regard, it is worth noting that the only real acknowledgement of the project’s role in relation to climate change is deeply cynical and stated in the first paragraph of this section: “The NSW Government has acknowledged that, despite efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some climate change is now inevitable. The Government aims to minimise the impacts of climate change on natural and built environments, communities and the economy” (25-1). This statement represents the full incorporation of climate change science into a business as usual approach to development.

( Note the climate change aspects are dealt with in Chapter 25 and Appendix W of the EIS)





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