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Infrastructure blog

Climate change is happening right now – is our infrastructure ready?

30 November 2022

The ICE welcomes responses to a consultation on improving the UK’s infrastructure climate resilience.

Climate change is happening right now – is our infrastructure ready?
The world’s increasingly facing unparalleled extremes resulting from climate change. Image credit: Yau Ming Low/Shutterstock

Climate resilience is rapidly rising up the political agenda.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Climate Change Committee have only recently outlined the looming impacts of climate change on lives and livelihoods, with increasingly higher degrees of confidence.

Climate-related disasters across the world have focused attention on the need for resilient and adaptive infrastructure.

Civil engineers are used to designing and building infrastructure for extremes, not averages, but the definition of ‘extreme’ has shifted in recent years.

Even with progress towards net zero, climate change is happening right now – as this year’s record-breaking temperature highs in the UK have clearly shown.

The world’s increasingly facing unparalleled extremes of temperature, wetter winters, drier summers and higher winds resulting from climate change. Is our infrastructure ready?

This is the question the ICE is asking as part of a new green paper consultation that aims to gather insight into the policies required to ensure our infrastructure is more climate resilient.

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How vulnerable is our existing infrastructure?

What has become clear is that we will need to adapt no matter what.

The early consequences of climate change are already becoming apparent and will become more evident regardless of how well we meet carbon emission reduction targets.

Most infrastructure that supports national resilience already exists and will do so for many years, though not all of it is built to modern engineering standards.

Managing these climate risks requires changes to how our legacy infrastructure is monitored and maintained, as well as retrofitted.

Without this, we risk increased repair bills, poorly performing infrastructure, and even cascade failures – with potentially devastating consequences.

In addition to the infrastructure we already have, new infrastructure needs to be designed and operated in a way that copes better with today’s extremes and is resilient to the more ‘extreme extremes’ of the future.

Cascade failures

Major power outages, landslides onto roads, buckling train lines and flooding of infrastructure sites are all realistic scenarios, which can lead to ‘cascading risks’ affecting other infrastructure sectors.

Different infrastructure sectors are highly interdependent, so the shutdown of one operator may cause knock-on effects on multiple other sectors.

The reliance of other infrastructure on the power sector presents an acute vulnerability.

Infrastructure operates as a system of systems. Infrastructure owners and operators must better understand the other networks and systems they are dependent on and interdependent with.

So when operators and policy makers are developing resilience and adaptation policies and strategies, they must do so with a systems thinking approach.

What are the options?

Adaptation might take the form of building new assets. For example:

  • More flood defences in the right places would protect us from future storms;
  • More reservoir capacity would help the nation get through future droughts; and
  • More diverse power generation would meet our electricity needs through more variable future weather patterns.

Retrofitting existing infrastructure could also contribute. Upgrading physical railway infrastructure could mean the network continues to operate normally in warmer temperatures, for example.

The day after the mercury hit 40.3 degrees in July 2022, Network Rail announced a resilience task force looking at, among other things, what engineering options are needed to ensure existing railway infrastructure can continue to function safely and reliably during extremely hot weather.

All of these options and any others would need suitable policies in place to make their planning, design and operation more simple.

How to encourage greater attention for funding resilience

All this requires a proportionate response as investment needs to be targeted to where it will have the greatest impact. It’s impossible to adapt every piece of the infrastructure system in every location.

Evidence suggests that most climate finance is being channelled into mitigation rather than adaptation. And where funding for adaptation is available, this mainly comes from consumers and taxpayers.

Therefore, as well as crowding in more private finance for resilience and adaptation, it’s important that there’s a regulatory system in place that protects consumer interests while providing certainty to investors.

Civil engineers, with their commitment to public benefit, technical knowledge of infrastructure, and direct experience of working with both complex modelling and multiple stakeholders, have a vital role in informing the debate.

As a UK parliamentary committee only recently highlighted, policy makers can no longer keep kicking the resilience can down the road.

We need to act quickly and decisively when it comes to enacting real change to make our infrastructure system more resilient to the extremes we face both now and in the future.

Have your say

Read and respond to the ICE’s green paper on making the UK’s infrastructure more climate resilient.

Responses should be sent to the ICE policy team.

Read the green paper
  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE