How Will UK Infrastructure Stand Up To Climate Change?
With the intense summer sun now bearing down upon us this week, it seems that the realities of climate change are really starting to set in.
Average summer temperatures in the UK are typically between 23 and 24 degrees C, but the mercury is now hitting the high 30s all over the country… and the Met Office has just issued its first-ever Red warning for exceptional heat.
The national severe weather warning is in place over July 18th and 19th, covering parts of central, northern, eastern and southeastern England.
Paul Gunersen, chief meteorologist with the weather service, said: “Exceptional, perhaps record-breaking temperatures are likely early next week, quite widely across the red warning area on Monday, and focused a little more east and north on Tuesday.
“Currently, there is a 50 per cent chance we could see temperatures top 40 degrees C and 80 per cent we will see a new maximum temperature reached.
“Nights are also likely to be exceptionally warm, especially in urban areas. This is likely to lead to widespread impacts on people and infrastructure. Therefore, it is important people plan for the heat and consider changing their routines. This level of heat can have adverse health effects.”
These temperature hikes are a strong indication that expert predictions are, indeed, on the money when it comes to how climate change and global warming will affect us here in the UK.
Although we’re unaccustomed to seeing such high temperatures, it seems that scientists believe heatwaves are only going to become more frequent and more intense on UK shores as time goes on… so the question must now be asked:
How will our infrastructure cope with climate risks?
Extreme weather of all kinds, not just extreme heat, inevitably takes its toll on infrastructure and networks. Railway systems, for example, can start to overheat, with the metal on the steel rail tracks expanding and being put at increasing risk of buckling… which has the potential to derail trains.
Public transport, power lines, telecommunications and so on can all be disrupted due to flooding events, which are becoming increasingly common around the country – and which have led the Environment Agency to advise that all public infrastructure must be made flood resilient by 2050 and that flood risks be taken into account when approaching new construction projects.
Extreme events have long been associated with the disruption to essential services such as energy and water supplies, communication networks, transportation and so on, all of which can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing, as well as local economies.
And now a new report from the Climate Change Committee has suggested that many of the country’s critical water, energy, transport and digital providers are not taking account of the climate risks posed to connected infrastructure systems… and this could result in a series of failures in service provision if left unaddressed.
Survey respondents included Thames Water, the Environment Agency, National Grid, Highways England, Network Rail, London Heathrow Airport and UK Power Networks, among others.
Chair of the committee Baroness Brown explained that key gaps have been discovered in the UK’s national adaptation planning, with organisations included in the assessment unprepared for “cascading infrastructure failures”.
She went on to say: “For example, a flood might damage an electricity substation which has a knock-on effect on the transport network due to a power outage. These dependencies, if disrupted, have potentially devastating consequences.
“The government needs to help reporting organisations better understand and manage these risks. Prudent planning today can help avoid a domino effect of failures in the future.”
What about water?
Water infrastructure – which includes the likes of reservoirs and dams, pipes, water treatment and sewage treatment plants – faces serious climate change risks, particularly where increases in coastal and surface water flooding are concerned.
Buried infrastructure is also at risk, such as water pipelines, with increasing damage being caused in the future, thanks to flooding and subsidence. Water treatment facilities may also struggle as time goes on, affected by more frequent flooding episodes, which could drive down water quality and have an impact on human health.
And, of course, the availability of public water supplies is also likely to be put under increasing pressure during more frequent and intense dry periods – such as the one we’re experiencing right now.
Last year’s UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Technical Report identified beneficial actions that could be taken within the next five years to help improve resilience, including using common formalised standards across different infrastructure sectors to help build system resilience across the entire infrastructure network.
One big risk to UK infrastructure is river and surface water flooding, but developing consistent indicators of flood risk resilience for assets in the water sector could engender the appropriate conditions for adaptation, allowing wholesale improvements to be delivered that can be better measured over time.
We will also face increased demand for water in line with climate change, with interruptions to supply expected during dry spells. Beneficial actions that could be carried out over the next few years to help ease this situation could include tightening building regulations, enhancing water metering and carrying out more research into drought.
Domestic water supplies may also be interrupted by reduced rainfall in the summer months, driven by climate change, with water stress and scarcity becoming more commonplace around the country. Regions in the south-east of England, in particular, are already facing water stress issues right now.
To help address this risk, sustainable urban drainage systems could be implemented to help improve water quality and reduce surface water flooding. In addition, being more proactive about saving water and wasting fewer resources could also prove beneficial, with the UK’s average personal water consumption high by European standards.