by Lee Chapman, David Jaroszweski and Emma Ferranti
The functioning of society is dependent on reliable infrastructure. Any loss of essential services such as energy, water and mobility results in significant health, wellbeing and economic impacts. The day-to-day performance of our infrastructure, however, is impacted by the weather. Extreme weather events such as heatwaves and flooding highlight existing vulnerabilities in our infrastructure systems. These extreme events provide a window into what the future may hold in the face of climate change.
The 2008 UK Climate Change Act was a world-leading piece of legislation. It brought a step-change in the way the UK tackled climate change. The act resulted in the independent Climate Change Committee and also mandated that a UK-wide Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) be completed every five years. Taking a sector-by-sector approach, the CCRA provides a regular stock-take to quantify the risks and opportunities associated with climate change, enabling the prioritisation of actions based upon urgency. Infrastructure is a key sector targeted by the CCRA.
The assessment of climate change impacts is crucial for long-term governmental planning. This is especially true in the infrastructure sector where adaptation planning is required on existing and, in many cases, ageing assets built to withstand a different climate to that experienced today (we still utilise some infrastructure dating from the Victorian era). It also means that any investment in new assets needs to consider a potential lifespan in excess of 50-100 years. Such ‘lock-in’ underpins the need to build climate resilience into all new infrastructure projects to ensure the maximum return on investments.
Where are we now?
Since the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK has now completed two CCRAs and is into its third cycle (the third CCRA is slated to be brought before parliament in January 2022). The CCRA ultimately feeds into the latest iteration of the National Adaptation Programme (NAP) which sets out where the government will target adaptation over the next five years. It also outlines the latest process for Adaptation Reporting Power (ARP) where the Secretary of State has the power to direct reporting bodies (i.e. infrastructure owners and operators) to detail their latest plans to adapt to climate change. ARP was a mandatory process for the first two iterations but has since changed to an optional return.
Underpinned by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change National Adaptation Plans process, other countries throughout the world have adopted a similar approach. The majority of European countries have now completed a CCRA whereas the US has completed four National Climate Assessments. In all cases, there is clear evidence of economic flows into climate adaptation.
Despite this progress, adaptation continues to be too patchy and slow to make a significant difference on the ground. Each year brings new headlines of record-breaking weather impacting upon our infrastructure. Large scale flood events that damage property and isolate communities have almost become expected each winter. In contrast, record breaking temperatures wreak havoc on our rail networks during the summer. However, a challenge remains to directly attribute these individual events to climate change. Many extreme events remain within the boundaries of what is considered ‘normal’ for our weather – it is the frequency in which the events are happening that is increasingly not normal. The reality is that large quantities of infrastructure are not weather resilient, let alone climate resilient. Indeed, there is still plenty that needs to be done to understand the impacts of the current weather on infrastructure networks.
One of the biggest challenges that the infrastructure sector faces is the interconnected nature of its assets. For example, our mobility networks are becoming increasingly electrified meaning that a power outage will not only impact the electricity grid but also transport. Likewise, whereas the pandemic has brought into sharp focus our dependence on Information and Communications Technology (ICT), infrastructure too has become ever more reliant on the reliability of ICT networks (e.g. smart grids for energy). The potential for such ‘cascade failures’ across infrastructure networks means that the current responsibilities and adaptation decisions made by individual infrastructure owners and operators extend beyond their own assets. It is no longer just about getting their own house in order – dedicated data needs to be collected, shared and analysed for the greater good.
The other side of the climate change adaptation coin is mitigation. This, if anything, is more crucial than adaptation as we need to limit the scale of climate change (keeping global temperature rises around 1.5°C was the aim of the Paris Agreement). Prevention is better than cure after all! Announced in December 2020, the UK is aiming to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050. This is ambitious, but in 2018, emissions were already 44% below 1990 levels – this is thanks in a large part to reductions in the energy sector. The drive to net zero has major implications for the infrastructure sector, even increasing exposure to the impacts of climate change in some cases. For example, a greater dependence on renewable energy may mean more offshore wind exposed to storm damage. A reliance on clean electricity for mobility will further compound risks from cascade failures.
Where are we heading?
The direction of travel is, unfortunately, clear. The UK is on its way to more extreme weather: warmer, drier, summers, and milder, wetter, winters. Not to mention the small matter of sea level rise which, left unchecked, will overwhelm some of our critical infrastructure on the coast. Taken together, all will have a significant impact on infrastructure with implications for mobility, energy generation and water resources – ultimately compromising the safe functioning of society.
It is acknowledged that the infrastructure sector is playing its part. Many of the key infrastructure owners and operators now have clear adaptation plans (e.g. Network Rail’s Weather Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation plans) and investments are being made. However, there is a clear and pressing need to move away from any remaining ‘siloed’ thinking which may result in an increased risk of cascading failure across the infrastructure system. The infrastructure sector is just one system among many and failure can cascade even further beyond. This can only be resolved by high level oversight and policy and knowledge exchange between infrastructure organisations to develop a shared understanding of cross-sector risks. Within the UK, the Infrastructure Operators Adaptation Forum (IOAF) brings together senior transport professionals, local and national government, independent bodies such as the Climate Change Committee and Environment Agency and academics to share and create best practice in weather resilience and climate adaptation.
One of the biggest challenges for investments in adaptation are defined time periods. The CCRA and NAP operate over a five-year timescale (i.e. the length of a typical governmental term of office). Likewise, infrastructure owners and operators work to defined control periods. All contribute to short-term thinking in adaptation planning which is not conducive to truly tackling the impacts of climate change that will be felt over decades. The consequence is incremental adaptation when what is really required is transformative adaptation – the two do not need to be considered as different. There is scope to develop adaptation pathways which can evolve with the risk. Although more expensive in the long term, these reduce the scale of the investment in the short term. However, this approach is constrained by working to short time horizons and is no longer underpinned by mandatory reporting via ARP.
The UK’s approach to climate resilience and adaptation has been world-leading and has served as the basis for similar approaches internationally. The statutory framework of rolling national risk assessments and adaptation programmes has helped to embed the adaptation process in government and non-government bodies and is starting to feed through into actions on the ground. However, the current siloed nature of adaptation, along with the political and institutional barriers to long-term planning mean that the truly radical and transformative changes that could build a climate resilient nation are arguably not being sufficiently nurtured. Therefore, based on these conclusions, the following recommendations can be made:
- Longer term thinking is essential. Building cross-party consensus for both climate change mitigation and adaptation is crucial to overcome incremental adaptation.
- ARP needs to once again be a mandatory process aligned to the CCRA and NAP. Without this comprehensive input, it is almost impossible to assess progress towards targets.
- Encourage further high level oversight and investment to improve the evidence base and mitigate against interacting / cross sector risks.