UK infrastructure must adapt to climate change

9th May 2011

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Ensuring the UK's energy, transport and communications systems can cope with more extreme weather conditions is crucial for economic stability, warns environment secretary.

Launching Defra’s new report, “Climate Resilient Infrastructure”, Caroline Spelman said: “Our economy cannot grow if there are repeated power failures, or goods cannot be transported because roads are flooded and railways have buckled, or if intense rainfall or high temperatures disrupt wi-fi signals.”

With the increased likelihood of extreme weather events such as flooding, droughts and heatwaves, the government must work with the private sector, professional bodies and regulators to ensure the UK’s infrastructure can adapt adequately.

The report calls on the companies that own and operate facilities crucial to the country’s water, energy, transport and communications network to design and locate new assets in the best way to cope with the predicted effects of climate change, as well as ensuring the improvement of existing facilities.

To aid this aim, investors should demand more information on the climate resilience of projects, says the report, and adaptation should be included into the decision-making process of the planned Green Investment Bank.

The government must further help organisations by providing regulatory frameworks that incentivise adaptation and work to address market failures and barriers to the adaptation of infrastructure.

The report admits the need for short-term value for money has meant that adaptation is not yet being fully addressed by regulators. It states: “While in principle the economic regulatory framework is able to fund appropriate adaptation measures, in the context of securing climate resilience infrastructure, there is a need for a longer-term focus.”

The need for innovation from within industry to produce new and cost-effective ways to best adapt to climate change is highlighted in the report. It also calls on professional bodies to ensure their members have the relevant skills to make this a reality.

Martin Baxter, executive director of policy at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, agrees such skills are important for environment professionals, but says the issue of resilience is much broader than national infrastructure.

“It is crucial that infrastructure is built to be resilient to a changing climate, but this is just one element of climate change adaptation,” he says. “All organisations need to understand how the environment will change the way they will do business and create value in the future.

“There will be both risks and opportunities, and for our members it is about making sure that their organisations have the skills and capabilities to see those connections and build it into the way in which they do business.”

Baxter’s sentiments are echoed in the Defra report which argues that the swift adaptation of the UK’s infrastructure will not only help to ensure the future stability of electricity and water supply, but will also provide a further area of growth for the economy says Spelman.

“Infrastructure assets often have lives of at least 50-100 years so they need to be designed to function long into the future when the climate is projected to be very different,” she said.

“This presents great opportunities for British businesses to develop new technologies and processes in engineering, planning and consultancy, ICT-based technologies, renewable energy, investment, and insurance.”

Over the next 18 months, the government will work with industry to implement the actions set out in the report and will report on its progress in the UK’s first Adaptation Programme at the end of 2012.

The findings of the report come after the conclusion of a two-year study examining the risks and potential solutions to improve the resilience of infrastructure in the energy, ICT, transport and water sectors. To read the report in full and to view the four sector-specific studies visit Defra’s website.

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