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How to plan for 80 years of climate change

05 August 2019

England is putting the finishing touches to an innovative 80-year strategy for flooding and coastal erosion. Julie Foley of the Environment Agency explains how it will make the country and its infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

How to plan for 80 years of climate change
he Environment Agency’s new flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy aims to create climate-resilient places. Image credit: Evan Roussos/Pixabay

Climate change is the biggest risk the world faces. It's already causing more frequent, intense flooding and sea level rise. Urgent action needs to be taken to prepare for a range of future scenarios, including a 4°C rise in global temperature.

Climate change is the driving force behind the English Environment Agency’s flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy, the one-year consultation for which ended in July 2019. It sets out sets out how to develop a nation that is ready for, and resilient to, flooding and coastal change – today, tomorrow and to the year 2100.

Aspirations include creating climate-resilient places, which involves working with government and partners to explore and develop the concept of standards for flood and coastal resilience. It also requires a national suite of tools that can be used to deliver flood and coastal resilience in certain places.

The strategy also aims to ensure today’s growth and infrastructure is resilient in tomorrow’s climate, and to prepare society for climate change through education and accessible digital information.

A new philosophy

The scale of potential future flooding and coastal change is significant. Despite the positive work the Environment Agency and other risk management authorities are already doing, a different philosophy needs to be adopted.

While it will never be possible to prevent all flooding and coastal change, the current approach has been developed responding to previous floods rather than to meet the challenges of climate change. With a change in approach, there is a risk locking future generations into a legacy of increasing challenges.

The draft strategy takes a long-term approach that will enable the UK to adapt to the growing pressures of climate change and population growth. Traditionally, investment has been targeted at new flood and coastal infrastructure and its subsequent maintenance. While this will remain very important, a wider range of tools for creating climate-resilient places is needed − for example natural flood management, property level resilience and ensuring improved response and recovery.

A role for everyone

There is also a recognition that flooding and coastal change needs to be owned by everyone. This means people at immediate risk of flooding and those who are not, small and large businesses, and national and local government. People need to be at the heart of local decision making.

The draft strategy paints a national ambition for England that can also work for local places. It recognises that every place is different with different needs and infrastructure, and in often very different environments. It embraces the idea that the best solution for a given place now is likely to look different in the future. It also recognises innovation may lead to new approaches to managing different climate issues or societal expectations.

The strategy is clear on the challenges we face but also the opportunities. Low-carbon-dioxide, flood-resilient planning and development in the right places will deliver long-term returns for investors and the environment. It will also develop skills, technology, and expertise in the national economy and create jobs.

Next steps

The Environment Agency is now finalising the strategy, which will sit alongside the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ forthcoming flood policy statement and the Environment Agency’s next five-year action plan, due to be published in 2020.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (1723) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Julie Foley, Director of Flood Risk Strategy & National Adaptation, Environment Agency