Home » Sector by sector: How well-adapted is UK infrastructure for climate change? – edie

Sector by sector: How well-adapted is UK infrastructure for climate change? – edie

Pictured: Flooding at the River Severn in Bewdley

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has today (29 March) published its latest annual assessment of whether policymaking in the UK is sufficient to build in climate adaptation for key infrastructure in England, including buildings, water systems and transport networks.

The general conclusion is: ‘no’. The CCC concluded that the Government’s adaptation vision, its National Adaptation Programme, is “failing to match the scale of the challenge” at hand. CCC staff found evidence of “fully credible” adaptation-related policymaking against just five of the 45 adaptation outcomes assessed. Many areas lack even a time-bound target. Moreover, in areas where there is policy, delivery and implementation has been slow, the CCC has concluded.

Regardless of whether the UK achieves its long-term climate targets, a certain level of climate change has already happened, with more baked in. We can expect, the CCC has previously stated, warmer and wetter winters and warmer and drier summers, with far more frequent and intense heatwaves.

Following on from our initial coverage of the new CCC report, this article takes a deeper dive into the CCC’s conclusions, sector by sector.

Agriculture and land use

Last year, the CCC slammed the Government for slow progress in reducing the climate impact of agriculture and land use, with emissions having remained relatively flat since the Climate Change Act was first implemented in 2008.

In this latest report, the CCC also concludes that the UK’s food and land use systems are not likely to be well-adapted for future climate change. The general public has become increasingly aware of this, the CCC explains, due to recent shortages of vegetables.

The report criticizes the UK Government for failing to bring forward a targeted strategy and associated targets and indicators for ensuring that agriculture remains productive and profitable as the climate changes. Such a strategy was due earlier this year but is now overdue.

The CCC’s conclusion is that adaptation planning for forests and fisheries is, at present, more credible than for agriculture. It does acknowledge that the Government is moving to change farming payments in a move to stop incentivizing ecologically damaging, high-emission practices and facilitate nature restoration – but there is no clear estimate of how this may improve adaptation on a national scale.

One key policy recommendation made by the CCC is mandatory climate risk reporting from large food companies. The mandate should cover all parts of the supply chain, the CCC argues, to enable better evaluation of risks and progress across the whole food system. The UK Government did mandate climate risk reporting for some firms last year, and the scope of the mandate will broaden through to

Water

Climate change affects the world’s water cycle in complex ways. The good news is that UK’s water sector is one of a few that the CCC deems to have credible adaptation planning in place.

The CCC has praised the Government for implementing clear, time-bound targets to reduce water demand and tackle leaks. It also notes that planning is underway to increase supply within some regions particularly prone to drought, in some cases by capturing water in neighbouring, wetter regions.

However, the new report outlines several areas for improvement, noting gaps between the level of top-line ambition from the government and the actual impact on the ground. These include improving data and monitoring to help enable targeted interventions and to hold water companies to account and reshaping public engagement and education on water use. On this latter point, the CCC notes that household water consumption has actually risen over the past decade, when the Government had pledged to reduce it.

Energy

The Joint Committee on National Security stated in October 2022 that power cuts had increased since October 2020, with increasingly frequent and intense storms and heatwaves being a key contributor. For example, the heatwaves of summer 2022 made generation at gas plants, nuclear plants and pumped hydro facilities more challenging in the UK and beyond.

The CCC’s conclusion is that the UK Government, and other bodies across the energy system including regulator Ofgem, have “some consideration” of the need for climate adaptation. It notes that climate is a consideration for all statutory planning applications and that there are some specific policies to increase asset resilience, such as the fact that all substations need adequate flood protection.

But there is still work to be done. The CCC is recommending a review of the need for statutory requirements to protect energy generation and distribution infrastructure from hazards beyond floods. It also wants to see streamlined data on risk across the whole energy system. Changes should reflect the UK’s commitment to end unabated fossil fuel electricity generation by 2035, which will see more nuclear, renewables and energy storage coming online.

The CCC is also calling for Ofgem to have a climate resilience remit and for the same remit for the new Future System Operator.

The built environment

The Environment Agency estimates that one in every six homes in England is at risk of flooding. The CCC has ruled that the overall flood risk management plan for England, plus local plans, are “typically credible”, and it praised the UK Government for work with industry to deliver publicly backed flood insurance.

Nonetheless, the CCC’s new report questions whether public funding commitments will need to be increased to deliver flood plans. It also emphasizes the need for more streamlined systems to collect data on property flood resilience. Additionally highlighted is the need for measures to clamp down on developments on flood plains or areas that will be at heightened flood risk in the future.

Beyond adapting buildings to flooding, the CCC’s conclusion is that there is less thorough planning and regulation to adapt cities and towns to other climate risks. It warns that there are “no clear mechanisms to monitor and mitigate” overheating in buildings, nor the ‘urban heat island effect’ – the fact that urban areas tend to be warmer than rural ones, partly due to dark surfaces absorbing heat.

The CCC has also expressed concerns that plans to adapt developments in coastal areas are largely voluntary rather than mandatory. It calls for better protections here and recommends that the Government budgets for interventions to help affected communities to adapt. The UK has already seen its first case of a community being moved due to coastal flooding made worse by the climate crisis, in Fairbourne, Wales.

Telecoms and ICT

The CCC collects data from more than 90 of the UK’s key infrastructure owners and operators each year, and last year posted strong levels of response from the ICT and telecommunications sector and generally high levels of reporting.

But the CCC would like to see a clearer, long-term plan to manage climate risks from either the Government or from the industry in collaboration. It notes the sector-specific challenges of doing so; firms often do not share the location of their infrastructure for commercial sensitivity reasons, and infrastructure often has different owners and operators, for example. But it emphasizes that having good baseline data is the foundation of a credible long-term plan.

The CCC also recommends that Ofcom is given a statutory remit for climate resilience.

Transport

The CCC’s headline conclusion is that the strategic national plans for road networks and rail have credible adaptation plans from Government, but that ports and airports do not, largely due to “incomplete” data. Six port authorities and several key organisations in aviation did not support climate risk reports to the CCC within the required deadline last year, so this was perhaps to be expected.

According to the CCC, only four UK ports have reported on climate risk. Mandatory resilience planning may be needed from all ports and airports in the future, as it is for the UK’s two largest airports (London Heathrow and Manchester) already.

Moreover, the CCC does believe that there is still room for improvement in adaptation planning for road and rail networks. It states that there is a “lack of credible plans” at a local level for roads and that, while rail plans are in place, in some cases, adverse weather impacts are increasing more rapidly than expected. Used as examples in the report are flash flooding of DLR stations in London in 2021, and grass fires in London during the August 2022 heatwave.

As well as physical climate risks, the CCC notes that transport systems will face some transition risks on the road to net-zero. Fewer miles will need to be driven, especially by petrol and diesel cars with just one person in them. This will impact planning for roads and public and active transport.


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