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5 things the UK’s new climate adaptation plan means for infrastructure resilience

18 July 2023

The UK government has published NAP3, its latest five-year plan to improve climate resilience – but there is a troubling lack of urgency.

5 things the UK’s new climate adaptation plan means for infrastructure resilience
The UK’s infrastructure struggles with extreme heat – but a year on from the hottest day on record, the government is still failing to prioritise climate adaptation. Image: Shutterstock

The UK government has published its third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3).

The programme sets out a strategic five-year approach for how the government will respond to the threat of climate change.

While there are some welcome measures in the programme, key actions – and a much-needed sense of urgency – are sorely missing.

Here are the headline takeaways for infrastructure:

1. A new cross-departmental Climate Resilience Board will drive future action

The government will establish a new, cross-departmental Climate Resilience Board to oversee cross-cutting climate adaptation issues – a responsibility that currently sits with the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The board will be responsible for driving further government action to increase climate resilience in the UK.

This is welcome. Responsibility for climate resilience and adaptation needs to extend beyond Defra’s remit and across the whole government.

The move to realign adaptation reporting with the wider government timetable is also positive – and something the ICE has called for recently.

The shift means infrastructure owners and operators will provide the most up-to-date information to the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

2. Systems thinking will inform future risk assessments

Defra will work with the CCC to shift to a systems-based risk assessment approach in the next Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA).

This will enable more effective planning and implementation of resilience measures across infrastructure networks.

Infrastructure is an interconnected ‘system of systems’. A systems-based approach allows infrastructure to more flexibly adapt to future risks.

However, the next CCRA will only be published in January 2027. Embedding systems thinking could and should happen much faster.

NAP3 does include other welcome commitments to understand the interconnectivity between infrastructure systems and address the risk of cascade failure.

These include:

  • New tools, including digital twin technology, that allow infrastructure operators to cooperate across sectors to understand climate risk at the system level. The ICE has previously called for the rollout of digital twins to better identify and stress-test climate risks.
  • New guidance to improve sector-level reporting on climate risks, including interdependencies and cascading failures, through the fourth round of the Adaptation Reporting Power in 2024.

3. There’s too little on adapting to extreme weather

The Department for Transport (DfT) will develop a new adaptation strategy to address the transport-related risks identified in the CCRA.

However, there's little else in NAP3 on adapting infrastructure and buildings to extreme heat.

It’s almost a year on from the hottest day ever recorded in England. Large parts of the infrastructure system struggled to cope with extreme temperatures.

Nevertheless, NAP3 largely restates announcements already made elsewhere, including in the Environment Act, Plan for Water, and Resilience Framework.

Nor is there a firm commitment to make reporting on climate risks, impacts and adaptation plans mandatory for infrastructure owners and operators.

Instead, the government will review whether to do so by 2024-25.

Providing certainty about future requirements now would encourage more organisations to start reporting ahead of time.

Without this information, it’s difficult for the government and regulators to identify and focus on the infrastructure at greatest risk.

4. There’s little clarity on regulation and resilience

Various regulatory bodies supervise infrastructure spending in the UK.

But ‘resilience’ doesn’t have a market value. Without an understanding of how regulators should measure and reward it, it is hard to incentivise resilience in the long term.

NAP3 does little to address this.

The ICE highlighted this issue in a recent report on climate adaptation and resilience. The CCC has also focused on how regulatory price controls do not incentivise long-term resilience.

To drive investment in climate resilience, the UK needs minimum resilience standards and a clearer climate resilience remit for regulators.

The ICE has also recommended a UK government-led national review of the economics of adaptation to inform clearer resilience standards.

5. Where’s the urgency?

There are many positive actions outlined in NAP3. But it’s still another missed opportunity in the UK’s response to climate change.

The lack of new plans and investment raises questions about how urgently the government is treating adaptation.

Climate change is no longer an uncertain, far-off threat. Its effects are already being felt everywhere.

The CCC has warned of a “lost decade” in action on adaptation.

If NAP3 falls short, the UK could lose another five years to ineffective adaptation action.

This would be hugely damaging to the country’s infrastructure and the people and businesses that use it.

The ICE’s view

The scale of the resilience challenge is enormous.

The UK must adapt to climate change much faster than it currently is. A ‘business-as-usual’ approach isn’t sufficient to tackle the challenges ahead.

By moving quickly and prioritising resilience and adaptation measures, the UK has the chance to develop a world-leading infrastructure system that is fit for the needs of today and the future.

By failing to invest in adaptation now, the current government is kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with.

All organisations and businesses should be encouraged to prepare for climate impacts. The CCC’s latest progress report identified that no sectors are yet well-adapted to climate risks.

Adaptation must be an immediate policy priority. NAP3 lacks the focus on delivery it needs to adequately prepare the UK’s infrastructure for climate change.

The ICE is continuing to engage with Defra, the Environment Agency, and other policymakers to ensure the public gets the resilient infrastructure it needs.

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