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Getting ready for extreme weather is a challenge – but this city is up to it

17 July 2024

Boosting climate resilience in London is an economic opportunity and could help all of the UK, writes Emma Howard Boyd.

Getting ready for extreme weather is a challenge – but this city is up to it
London is a system made up of many interdependent parts – and disruption to one part has cascading effects. Image credit: Shutterstock

Last year was the hottest on record, causing chaos and disruption to lives all over the world.

European heatwaves with mythological names like Cerberus and Charon brought wildfires on a terrifying scale.

According to Aon’s 2024 Climate and Catastrophe Insight report, New Zealand, Italy, Greece, Slovenia, and Croatia all recorded their costliest weather-related insurance events on record.

Michal Lörinc, head of catastrophe insight at Aon said the report highlights how communities can be vulnerable to disasters in different ways.

Lörinc explained: “For example, earthquakes in 2023 highlighted underinsurance and the importance of regulation and enforcement of building codes.

"In addition, deadly floods – notably in Libya and India – reinforce the necessity for proper maintenance of infrastructure while the Hawaii fires demonstrated the critical need for reliable warning systems and forecasting."

Findings from the London Climate Resilience Review

The London Climate Resilience Review has published its full and final report.

It assesses London’s climate resilience and makes 50 recommendations to prepare London for more frequent and intense climate events.

Read the final report

A global and local challenge

Climate change is an international problem experienced in your postcode.

In July 2021, some parts of London received more than twice the average July rainfall in two hours – over 2,000 properties flooded with stormwater and sewage.

More than 30 tube stations were affected and hospital wards were evacuated.

In July 2022, London hit 40°C.

The London Fire Brigade received 2,496 calls, and operations were cancelled at Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals as IT servers broke down in record heat.

In 2022’s heatwaves, there were 3,271 heat-related deaths in England and 387 in London.

Following those events, the mayor of London commissioned the London Climate Resilience Review to take stock. I was asked to chair the review.

My team, George Leigh and Johanna Sutton, and I have been on a fascinating tour of how Londoners are experiencing climate change here and now.

It’s more than an environmental challenge

We published an interim report in January and made 20 recommendations for action, strategy and governance.

Extreme weather brought by climate change can’t be ignored – it's the context to everything that people do at home and at work.

Organisational plans that don’t factor in disruption from heatwaves or floods should be considered incomplete.

Companies and government departments that silo this work into a climate or ESG team (if they have one) are duping themselves about the strength and security of their systems and assets.

It’s no longer sensible to look at preparations for extreme weather as a mainly ‘environmental’ issue. This is about business continuity and security.

Getting clear numbers

Before taking on this role, I called for the government to ask the Treasury to review the costs and benefits of climate resilience, and what the appropriate balance between public and private investment would be.

If we could put numbers on the value of being prepared, we could scale up investment and returns in the long-term security of the economy.

This isn’t only about avoided losses. Action on adaptation and resilience can provide returns on investment between 2:1 to 10:1.

But, time-poor CFOs and Treasury civil servants want specifics they can enter into a balance sheet.

Systems thinking

In the London Climate Resilience Review’s final report, which was published this morning, we looked at whether a cost/benefit exercise in London could help national efforts.

London can be viewed as a system made up of many interdependent and interconnected parts.

London’s transport infrastructure is dependent on energy infrastructure, which is dependent on water infrastructure, and vice versa.

Disruption to one part of the system has cascading effects and these all have a cost.

This challenge isn’t beyond us

London is an international economic hub, 21% of which is covered by trees.

It has a world-leading insurance market, pioneering scientific institutions, a thriving technology sector, international banking, and around 19% of the UK’s private sector businesses.

Accounting for predictable events isn’t beyond London’s financial brains, and the opportunity to invest in climate resilience is huge.

But it will take work, and there’s no time to lose.

Resilience standards

Among our recommendations, we said the UK government should work with relevant sectors and update resilience and technical standards.

In March 2023, an ICE policy position statement on climate resilience in the UK recommended that National Policy Statements include a list of climate hazards and desired standards of protection for each scenario.

The Climate Change Committee, National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), and the Fabian Society with the Association of British Insurers have also called for resilience standards.

The government has committed to publishing resilience standards by 2030, but this will miss the next round of regulatory cycles…

If government does not set out clear service standards until 2030, around £400 billion of future investment in infrastructure may not be optimised fully for resilience.

The NIC’s second National Infrastructure Assessment

In July 2022’s heatwave, the East Coast mainline was temporarily disconnected from King’s Cross. This wasn’t an acceptable level of service.

But, given more regular and severe hot weather in the South East, it may be that rail operators are permitted to run a slower, reduced service in the future.

Transport for London has asked the review for more clarity about minimum levels of service UK passengers should expect under different extreme event conditions in the future. This would help all transport providers align their plans.

Other recommendations

Among other recommendations, we said the UK government should appoint a Cabinet Office minister for adaptation and resilience with responsibility for the National Adaptation Programme.

We also recommended that Whitehall gives councils more funding and powers to adapt their communities for climate change, instead of making them compete for limited central money.

We said improvements are needed to housing standards to ensure homes are resilient against heat and flooding.

A strategic surface water authority is needed in London to tackle flash flooding across London’s 33 local authorities.

And, the mayor has accepted our recommendation to run an exercise to test London’s preparedness for a severe heat episode and identify potential cascading risks.

Read the full list of 50 recommendations

The opportunity for the UK

Countries all over the world are grappling with increasingly severe weather impacts.

The UK can show global leadership (as it has done on climate mitigation for nearly two decades) and set the standard for climate resilience.

This should happen nationwide. But London’s complex network of infrastructure systems make it a good place to start.

Read our final report

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  • Emma Howard Boyd, chair at London Climate Resilience Review, Green Finance Institute and Major Projects Association
  • George Leigh, senior advisor at London Climate Resilience Review
  • Johanna Sutton, policy officer at London Climate Resilience Review