Future leaders: De-risking of construction contracts in a changing climate  

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LaToya Ouna Kavisi explains that well-structured, clear, concise construction contracts from the procurement stage are key to successful infrastructure projects in an era of decarbonisation. 

According to the scientific community, human beings need to reduce carbon emissions significantly to slow down the steady increase of global temperatures that are increasing the likelihood and frequency of extreme weather conditions. Construction contracts thrive on predictability by lowering the risk for all parties involved. Unpredictable extreme climate leads to stakeholders taking comfort in the ‘Exceptional Events’ clause.

This paper discusses measures to ensure climate change resilient contracts whilst also delivering the required infrastructure. The synergy between the proposed solutions, stakeholder participation and overall willingness to adapt, is encouraged to reduce the risk of disputes and project overruns.

Changing climate – who is to blame?
National Geographic describes climate change as the long-term alteration of temperature and typical weather patterns in a place which could refer to a particular location or the planet as a whole. Natural processes can also contribute to climate change, including internal variability (e.g. cyclical ocean patterns like El Niño, La Niña and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) and external forces (e.g. volcanic activity, changes in the sun’s energy output, variations in Earth’s orbit). They further explain that although the climate has continually changed throughout the earth’s history when occurring naturally, the process is slow, taking place over hundreds and thousands of years. Unfortunately, the change is happening much faster with the human-influenced climate change.

Nearer to home, in 2019, East Africa experienced extreme weather not witnessed in decades. The season featured eight cyclonic storms, with a record-breaking six intensifying to very severe cyclonic storms and one to a super cyclonic storm, Kyarr.  The effects of the cyclones on East Africa were unprecedented, recording the second costliest season in the North Indian Ocean with an estimated damage value of more than $11.5bn.

The severe weather caused insurmountable destruction in infrastructure and deaths around the region, with Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia bearing the brunt of activity. Flash floods and landslides cut off key areas in Kenya, with many towns, especially in Northern Kenya, being inaccessible.

Fast forward to 2022 and there is still growing uncertainty about the significant impact of a changing climate. It has caused freshwater shortages in South Africa, dramatically altered our ability to produce food in East Africa and increased the number of deaths from floods, storms and heatwaves. These changes singularly and collectively have significantly impacted many industries, including farming, shipping, oil and gas production and construction. Succeeding in this harsh environment requires innovative new approaches, a collaborative effort from the scientific community and a broader appreciation for what is at risk.

FIDIC Exceptional Events clause 
In 2017, FIDIC replaced the name “force majeure” with “exceptional events”. However, sub-clause 18.1 excluded any event of “exceptionally adverse climatic conditions” from the definition of what constitutes an exceptional event. Instead, it supplied the contractor with the avenue of claiming for extension of time in the case of an event of “exceptionally adverse climatic conditions”. As climate change increased exposure to extreme weather events, contracting parties were likelier to invoke this clause to avoid liability where conditions outside their control have occurred.

De-risking construction contracts in the face of a changing climate
We can achieve climate resilient contracts through innovation and adaptation. Engineers should remain at the forefront of innovation, developing climate-resilient building materials and technologies that reduce our carbon footprint. These include materials that can withstand exceptional weather, such as heatwaves, wildfires, floods, hurricanes and typhoons.

Construction contracts should factor in pre-emptive construction methods, simple approaches such as tighter building envelopes and more robust materials and cutting-edge technologies like floating platforms.

An essential key to meeting those challenges is critical environmental intelligence. Just like the intelligence of the security world, intelligence in the environmental arena combines data, analysis, modelling and assessment. Knowledge of extreme weather events early enough reduces risk and increases foreseeability in construction contracts. Foreseeability provides certainty of the project’s projected cash flow, EOT claims and most importantly, project duration.

Climate change is unchartered territory for humanity and adaptation is key to our survival. To adjust to these conditions, innovation geared to achieve net zero should be accessible to all in the construction and infrastructure supply chain.  Whilst change can be difficult initially, efforts should be made for inclusivity, from the government to the those working on projects. In return, all stakeholders should be open minded and quick to adapt.

The author:

LaToya Ouna Kavisi PE, MIEK, MCiarb, is a structural engineer and construction contracts expert, Latoya studied civil engineering at the university of Nairobi, Kenya and later pursued her Master’s degree in construction law and dispute resolution at the university of Central Lancashire in the UK. She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators UK, a corporate member of the Institute of Engineers of Kenya, a professional engineer registered with the Engineers Board of Kenya and a member of the Association of Consulting Engineers – Future Leaders (ACEK-FL). She served as the chair of ACEK-FL for 2020/2021. She is currently a Future Leaders Advisory Council member and a co-opted member of the FIDIC membership committee.

LaToya is a 2022 contributor to the FIDIC Future Leaders Council annual book of essays on the shape of the industry.