UK’s critical infrastructure faces systemic risks from climate change

UK’s critical infrastructure faces systemic risks from climate change

By Will Bugler

A new briefing note from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), shows that the UK’s critical infrastructure like transport, energy, water and telecoms are vulnerable to climate change and its impacts. The note, released last month, also stresses that the interconnected nature of critical infrastructure systems means that shocks to one area often spread to other sectors which can lead to significant social and economic disruption.

The short report examines the main climate-related risks to the UK’s economic infrastructure, measures to reduce these risks and the main challenges to implementing resilience measures. Risks to the UK’s infrastructure emerge from both long-term changes in average climate which can reduce the capacity and efficiency of certain infrastructure types, and also from near-term, extreme weather events which can cause failure and disruption of essential services.

The report notes that, as a result of climate change, the UK is experiencing rising temperatures and sea levels, changing rainfall patterns, and an increase in the frequency and severity of certain extreme weather events (such as floods, droughts and heatwaves). These effects are already decreasing the capacity and efficiency of key infrastructure systems and causing direct damage to assets.

The recent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) 2019 report to Parliament concluded that while some progress has been made, no infrastructure sectors were reducing risks at an appropriate rate. This is significant as all infrastructure sectors must increase their resilience to ensure that the UK can continue to function under climate change. As the report notes, “infrastructure sectors are highly interdependent, relying on several other sectors to function reliably. This means that failure in one sector can spread rapidly between sectors and geographical areas.”

However, despite the interconnected nature of the risk, there appears to be a lack of overall co-ordination of resilience planning for UK critical infrastructure. “Stakeholders have highlighted that [there] is a lack of collaboration between infrastructure sectors, which limits providers’ understanding of risks arising from interdependencies.” According to the report.

Part of the problem lies in the differentiated but connected nature of the challenges faced by different infrastructure sectors. Many of the sectors share risks, but the level of planning and implementation of measures to increase resilience varies between sectors and can involve both technical and strategic measures. Sectors also have their own independent governance and operating processes and procedures that are often not well aligned.

In order to encourage resilience planning, some sectors have been encouraged to act through government schemes or by the industry regulator. For example, Ofgem (the energy regulator) offers financial rewards for electricity and gas companies that meet certain performance targets.

In the lead up to COP26 there will be increased pressure on core infrastructure sectors to demonstrate their ability to withstand climate-related shocks and stresses. With this in mind, the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (an agency that provides impartial, expert advice and recommendations to Government) is undertaking a study of the UK’s economic infrastructure resilience, due for publication in Spring of this year.

Download the full report: Infrastructure and climate change

Cover photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

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