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While net zero has been the focus of the climate emergency, the impacts of climate change on our existing infrastructure are already being felt. Emma Howard Boyd outlines why resilience must go hand-in-hand with the net zero transition.
This year, with COP26 coming to Glasgow, the success of the UN’s Race to Zero campaign is already apparent. More than a fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies, including water companies in the UK, have set net-zero targets. The UK was the first country to set a 2050 net-zero target, back in 2019, and the government should be applauded for its ambitious leadership.
By 2050, the number of people who lack sufficient water at least one month per year could soar to more than 5 billion. That's a terrifyingly large amount of people, but so is 3.6 billion, which is how many people are in that situation now. This change in weather patterns also accelerates the mass-extinction we are seeing in the natural world. Nature is in crisis, which increases the risk of outbreaks of new disease and, in turn, makes us more vulnerable to climate shocks like droughts.
These trends are not just something we need to mitigate 'for the next generation' – the climate emergency has dawned.
Net zero is not enough on its own; we need a 'race to resilience' that prioritises nature-based solutions wherever possible. Everyone in the public and private sectors needs a clearer understanding of how capital is deployed, right now, to manage the transition to net zero and prepare for climate shocks.
The Environment Agency (EA) works to create better, more resilient places for people and wildlife. We have set ourselves a net-zero carbon target to reduce emissions by at least 45% by 2030, and will offset what remains through activities including tree planting, restoring soil quality and peat bogs.
We believe that we have an important example to set because our work means we'll be showing how to reduce emissions in the process of enhancing nature and preparing for climate shocks. We are delivering climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience as one holistic activity. Not in silos.
Take the current Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management investment programme. This is investing £5.2bn over the next six years to provide flood protection to 336,000 properties. We want to ensure that flood and coastal risk management assets, and wider infrastructure, have the lowest possible carbon impact for construction, maintenance and operation throughout their lifetime.
A significant part of the EA carbon footprint comes from indirect sources: 54% of the total is from construction work and 58% of this is related to concrete utilised within our delivery partners and suppliers.
To deliver all this effectively, the EA has set up a long-term, collaborative framework with partners through an integrated delivery service. This close relationship ensures a shared commitment to climate resilience and reduced carbon solutions.
As part of this joint commitment, we've been working with delivery partners to develop a roadmap to net zero carbon for the programme. This will account for carbon within the economic assessment of our scheme proposals, including both the carbon emitted from construction and the carbon avoided by protecting properties from flooding (i.e. avoiding carbon emissions produced by the refurbishment of flooded properties). The roadmap enables us to understand the full costs and benefits of carbon emissions.
We are also working with our supply chain to reduce embodied carbon in the components and materials used for our constructed assets, for example concrete and steel. Our suppliers are also developing their own pathway to net zero carbon and exploring how technology will help them to decarbonise their products.
For many construction suppliers, a pathway to net zero carbon is still some way off, but there are a number of key industry roadmaps being produced to set out how these technologies will develop and be deployed, such as the MPA concrete roadmap.
There are examples of projects that are already helping us to reduce our carbon emissions, including the use of low carbon concrete in the Hythe Ranges sea defence project. The National Flood Strategy also puts a greater emphasis on nature-based solutions, and these will bring long-term benefits to flood risk reduction.
If discussions about the climate emergency only focus on net zero, we will be letting down all the people already in harm’s way. If construction does not take into account mounting floods and extreme heat, the low-carbon infrastructure we need could itself become the stranded asset of the future. Think solar panels melting in a heatwave or wind turbines unable to withstand storms. Both of these things have already happened, yet hardly anyone is thinking about these risks strategically.
Investors want to work with businesses that are committed to enhancing nature, getting to net zero and preparing for climate shocks. If the Environment Agency can do all this at the same time, then so can you. Our roadmap provides the key steps needed to meet this target. I hope you find it helpful.