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5 critical climate risks UK infrastructure policy must urgently address

Date
29 March 2023

The ICE analyses the Climate Change Committee’s condemning assessment of the UK’s preparedness for the challenges ahead.

5 critical climate risks UK infrastructure policy must urgently address
The CCC says the UK is vulnerable to climate change hazards at both a national and international scale. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK’s current approach to resilience and adaptation is unfit for purpose.

This is the headline finding of the latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

The report highlights a lack of ‘fully credible’ plans to mitigate against upcoming and existing risks, significant data gaps, and poor understanding of infrastructure interdependencies.

Published on 29 March, the CCC’s 2023 report echoes recommendations in the ICE’s recently published policy paper, How can the UK’s infrastructure be made more climate resilient?

The message is clear: the UK government cannot waste any more time. It needs to make climate adaptation and resilience a policy priority now.

1. Vulnerable systems

Infrastructure operates as a ‘system of systems’. All other infrastructure systems depend on energy supply to operate.

Weather and climate can affect energy asset performance and cause costly disruption. In the most severe cases, this can lead to loss of energy services entirely.

Increased reliance on electricity supply worsens the consequences of power outages. More frequent and intense extreme heat events can also damage and disrupt transport systems.

Climate assessments and adaptation actions need to account for interdependencies for all major electricity and gas producers, as well as transmission and distribution system operators.

2. Slow progress

Consistent with the CCC’s previous assessments of the 2018–23 National Adaptation Programme (NAP2), today’s report identifies that no sectors are yet well adapted to climate risks.

Basic consideration of climate change is becoming more common, but there’s little evidence of tangible progress in reducing exposure.

Despite some evidence of improved sectoral planning, ‘fully credible’ planning – where nearly all required policy milestones are in place – exists for only 5 of the CCC’s 45 adaptation outcomes.

Flood resilience has improved somewhat in the wake of recent heavy flooding across the UK. But there is insufficient information for other hazards, including heat and drought.

3. Poor data

For nearly 40% of adaptation outcomes, a lack of relevant and up-to-date datasets prevents the CCC from making a proper judgement on progress.

Gaps in the adaptation reporting power (ARP) limit understanding of the scale of, and preparedness for, interdependency risks across sectors such as energy, transport, and water.

The lack of data is also affecting efforts to target resilience outcomes effectively. Local roads, for example, are likely to face greater impacts from extreme weather, in part due to lack of data around weather-related delays and incidents.

The CCC has recommended that the government develops an effective climate change adaptation monitoring and evaluation programme, with sufficient long-term funding.

4. Economic exposure

The UK is heavily exposed to climate risks due to its central role in the global financial network. The CCC identifies flooding as the most significant economic risk.

But to incentivise investment in climate resilience and adaptation, we must first understand the value it provides.

This is why the ICE has called for the UK government to undertake a national review of the economics of adaptation.

The CCC has similarly recommended that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) undertakes a full review of how climate impacts will affect the UK’s macroeconomic performance and public finances. This will enable a full-cost benefit analysis for public investment in adaptation.

5. Insufficient ambition

NAP2 has inadequately prepared the UK for climate change.

It suffered from a lack of ambition and didn’t embed a focus on adaptation delivery across government.

The CCC has stressed that NAP3 must be much more ambitious than its predecessors and lead to a long-overdue shift ifocus towards delivery.

It must permanently and fully embed adaptation across government and within all relevant major policies and strategies. It must also put in place the enabling conditions that businesses and financial institutions need to drive adaptation.

The report makes clear that if NAP3 falls short, it risks another ‘lost five years’ of ineffective adaptation action – which would be hugely damaging for the UK’s infrastructure and those who use it.

Policymakers can no longer keep kicking the can down the road. The scale of the challenge is enormous – but the UK has the chance to develop a world-leading infrastructure system that meets the demands the country faces, now and in the future.

The ICE’s view

Resilience

As the UK continues the transition to net zero, more and more of the country’s infrastructure systems will rely on electricity.

Without understanding how these systems depend on one another, we risk a single point of failure that would impact communication, transport, and vital amenities.

Stress testing can protect the UK’s infrastructure systems and make them more resilient.

The ICE’s recent policy paper on climate adaptation and resilience highlighted the potential of digital twins to map interdependencies and assess vulnerabilities of assets at a regional scale.

Adaptation

Infrastructure policy should accurately reflect potential challenges to resilience, propose prospective mitigations, and set out requirements for action.

The ICE has called for National Policy Statements to include a list of climate hazards and desired standards of protection for scenarios such as extreme heat and drought.

Data

To effectively plan for future climate risks to the UK’s infrastructure, we must prioritise action on its most vulnerable elements.

The ICE has recommended making adaptation reporting (ARP) mandatory under the Climate Change Act for all infrastructure owners and operators.

Only with a complete picture of how the UK’s systems are linked can the government effectively plan for the coming challenges.


In case you missed it

  • Laura Cunliffe-Hall, interim lead policy manager at ICE