Infrastructure should be at the heart of the UK’s climate adaptation strategy

This post is by James Heath, chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission.

I write this from a modern flat in the centre of a big city on the hottest day of the year so far, unable to open my windows because a telecoms operator is digging up my street to lay full fibre broadband cables.

I hesitate to complain about my situation, not least as there will be many millions in far more precarious situations as a result of global warming, and because faster internet connections can reduce more carbon intensive activities like the daily commute.

But my ‘hot working’ situation perhaps offers a taste of the realities of life in the UK in the years to come, with infrastructure having the potential to both exacerbate and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Interconnected infrastructure means we can’t be complacent
The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) warnings in the latest Independent assessment of UK climate risk are striking. They chime with the alarm the National Infrastructure Commission has sounded on the need for the resilience of the UK’s critical infrastructure systems to be taken more seriously by government, regulators and operators. The interconnected nature of infrastructure systems – and the resulting risk of a ‘cascade’ effect on services – mean that we can’t afford to be complacent about any sector.

In a major report last summer we called on the government to publish a set of standards for all infrastructure sectors, setting out what households and businesses can expect from key services in the face of shocks and stresses. Establishing these standards, with regulators having duties to promote resilience, including through price control decisions, would provide incentives for operators to invest and prepare properly.

Network Rail’s commitment to agree the level of service passengers can expect during extreme weather is a good example of the type of clarity that is needed. To support this, we also proposed that infrastructure operators carry out regular stress tests, overseen by regulators, to ensure systems meet resilience standards.

Acting now will be cheaper
Acting now to address climate resilience will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences. Take one example, we know that England faces serious risks of water shortages, particularly in the drier parts of the country. The estimated cost of sticking at current levels of resilience and paying for emergency responses to extreme drought is almost double the cost of upgrading our water system to help mitigate that risk: relying on responsive measures would cost around £40 billion over the next 30 years, compared to £21 billion for providing the same amount of water through planned investment.

We await the government’s response to our recommendations, and the review of resilience promised in the recent Integrated Review.

The CCC’s report highlights risks to energy systems as one of the most serious impacts of global warming. Increasing reliance on electricity as we decarbonise parts of the economy, like transport, present additional threats to the resilience of our power grid. The unavoidable conclusion is that all parties involved in planning and designing energy networks must ensure they are resilient to environmental threats, such as storm damage or rising water levels.

There has been progress on UK flood resilience, including increased funding, although the government has decided not to adopt the system of national flood resilience standards advocated by the commission, and which the CCC implies would be beneficial for all critical infrastructure sectors. We will monitor whether the government’s chosen approach to flood risk management is sufficient to address the increasing risks.

We’ve also been working with the Met Office on developing a robust analytical model for testing highly renewable electricity systems against a range of plausible extreme weather events. We have published this modelling work and, in the run-up to the next National Infrastructure Assessment, will be exploring how different configurations of electricity systems would be affected by our forecasts, particularly when it comes to long periods without sufficient wind.

Infrastructure must be built and assessed with adaptation in mind
However, this is not a one way street. Infrastructure should not be cast as a ‘victim’ of warming, but rather it should be part of an adaptation strategy in which all sections of the built environment will need to participate, alongside nature-based methods like tree planting.

The location and design of infrastructure can make a positive difference to local climate proofing, such as how surfaces and foundations are prepared to enable water run-off or ensuring that interventions that disrupt green spaces replace that land with better, biodiverse spaces close by.

We’ve underlined these concepts in our Design principles for national infrastructure, and we are pleased to see the government’s recent announcement that nationally significant infrastructure projects will, in future, be obliged to demonstrate biodiversity net gain.

Most types of infrastructure have long lifespans, so climate risks – and opportunities to help mitigate impacts – must be considered for existing and retrofitted assets. And we must do the same with the new infrastructure assets that will be necessary to deliver net zero and goals on local economic growth.  

The second National Infrastructure Assessment, upon which we are embarking now, will focus on climate resilience as one of its main themes. We have already convened an expert panel to guide our thinking, and we are keen to consult widely on our priorities once they are published later this year. I hope Inside Track readers and writers will be part of that process, as the commission starts work on its recommendations to the government for how economic infrastructure can meet the country’s long term needs.

One comment

  • Would love to see better cycling infrastructure, the roads in the UK are utter CARbage and the local authorities think smearing road paint will fix the issue.

    My wife would have loved to bike to work but the roads are hectic and crowded with single occupancy motor vehicles. I am also in a similar position, as are my siblings and my parents. From my family alone you would have 5-6 vehicles off the road if you had safer infrastructure, with motor vehicles being used more appropriately for longer distances or those big shopping runs.

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