HomeLow carbon futureIs the UK ready for the impacts of climate change on vital infrastructure?

Is the UK ready for the impacts of climate change on vital infrastructure?

This post is by Emma Howard Boyd CBE who is leading the London Climate Resilience Review.

As MPs prepare to go back to their constituencies for summer recess, let’s keep our attention on parliament for a moment longer. The terrace is without doubt one of the best places in Westminster. Lords and MPs can entertain guests with a stunning view of the river and a cool breeze. This is particularly welcome in the summer when committee rooms in the Palace of Westminster can be stiflingly hot.

Even though the North Sea visits London twice a day, the riverside along the Thames is currently well protected from tidal flooding by the Thames Barrier, around 330 kilometres of walls and embankments, and over 400 other structures (such as flood gates, outfalls and pumps). The Thames Barrier is expected to continue to protect London until 2070.

Sea level rise is increasing
But sea levels are rising faster than originally thought. Between 1911 and 2018, the sea level in the Thames Estuary rose on average 1.4 millimetres per year. Between 1990 and 2018, it rose on average 3.6 millimetres per year. Regardless of whether we reach net zero by 2050, sea level in the Thames estuary is expected to rise by at least a metre by the end of the century.

Effective monitoring in the estuary means we now know the deadline for raising flood defences upstream of the barrier is 2050, which has changed from 2065 in the original plan. Parliamentarians will not want the terrace to be lined with tall walls that block out the view. No one in London wants to be cut off from the river, nor do they want a return to tidal flooding in the capital (barely even remembered in the present day).

The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan is the plan for dealing with this. It is internationally recognised as a leading example of an adaptive strategy. Developing the riverside is also a huge investment opportunity but it requires government, businesses and communities to buy into it. This is a conversation we need to start now: 2050 is only 26 and a half years away. A stitch in time saves nine in major infrastructure projects.

This week the government is expected to release its next five year plan for preparing for climate impacts including sea level rise, heatwaves, subsidence, floods, droughts and storms. This is called the National Adaptation Programme, or the NAP.

Climate change is already affecting UK infrastructure
Last October, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, a committee of senior MPs and peers, reported that there was overwhelming evidence that climate change is already having an impact on UK infrastructure. It said no minister has been taking responsibility for adapting UK infrastructure to the effects of climate change. The chair of the committee, Dame Margaret Beckett MP, said:  “The thing I find most disturbing is the lack of evidence that anyone in Government is focusing on how all the impacts can come together, creating cascading crises. There are simply no ministers with focused responsibility for making sure that our infrastructure is resilient to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.”

In the government’s response it said some of the committee’s questions would be addressed in the NAP, so we should check this week to make sure they are.

At the same time, the Mayor of London has asked me to lead the independent London Climate Resilience Review to look at how we are gearing up for climate impacts. I will make recommendations to stay ahead of these risks and seize the opportunity to secure investment; skills and jobs; healthier, safer, and greener places, and UK leadership on climate change. Please visit the London Climate Resilience Review at and take part. I will suggest action for change, and you can help me shape what that looks like. As the climate changes, we need to be prepared to learn and adapt, to stay ahead of cascading risks, including sea level rise in the Thames Estuary.

The London Climate Resilience Review is an independent review looking at London’s preparedness for heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms. Emma also chairs the Green Finance Institute and the Major Projects Association, and she is a UN global ambassador for Race to Resilience.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.