The government claims its third national adaptation programme represents a step-change in its approach to approving infrastructure resilience. David Smith is not so sure
The UK is “strikingly unprepared” for climate change. So declared the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in a report to Parliament earlier this year.
The report lamented a “lost decade” for government action, with every UK sector exposed to climate threats. It found “fully credible” planning for climate change in only five out of 45 adaptation outcomes that the government wants to achieve, and it made several recommendations for the government’s third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3).
NAP3 has now been published, with the government touting it as a step-change in its approach to improving infrastructure resilience. And there are certainly some positive pledges made. But overall, unfortunately, it does not appear that the government has heeded the CCC’s warning.
One need only look at headlines about record-breaking heatwaves in North America and southern Europe – and the deadly wildfires accompanying them – to understand that climate change is no longer some far-off, abstract threat. It is happening now.
Progress is slow – but we’re taking steps in the right direction
Setting aside the government’s lacklustre pace on this issue, NAP3 does make some welcome commitments. First, the government will create a new cross-departmental climate resilience board to drive further action. This is a positive step, indicating that the government understands responsibility for improving resilience should not sit squarely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but be a priority for the whole government.
Second, the Department for Transport will develop and consult on an adaptation strategy by the end of this year. The strategy will take a holistic approach to address transport-related risks identified in the climate change risk assessment.
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) believes that transport planning in England should be much more strategic. In its recent policy paper on why England needs a national transport strategy, it recommended that resilience form part of any national strategy.
So, as transport networks are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, the promise of an adaptation plan for transport is another step in the right direction.
Third, the new plan aligns adaptation reporting with other parts of the government’s statutory cycle under the Climate Change Act. The ICE called for this in its response to Defra’s consultation on the fourth round of climate adaptation reporting power.
This means that infrastructure owners and operators who voluntarily report will provide up-to-date information to the CCC, which will help inform adaptation plans. However, there is no firm commitment for reporting on climate risks – or what is being put in place to address them – to be made mandatory.
NAP3 merely promises to review whether adaptation reporting should be made mandatory for all infrastructure owners and operators by the 2024-25 period. This could prove to be a serious oversight.
Without a better understanding of the interactions and interdependencies between the UK’s critical systems – energy, water, sanitation, transport, and more – it will be difficult for the government, regulators and the industry to prioritise adaptation measures and focus on the most material risks.
Defra has confirmed that it will engage the CCC to approach the fourth climate change risk assessment due in January 2027 as a systems-based risk assessment. Again, this is encouraging. It will enable more effective planning and implementation of resilience measures.
To truly improve infrastructure resilience, we must move faster
But it brings us back to the question of urgency: can we afford – financially or ethically – to wait that long? The short answer is no.
Let us consider the financial element first. Generally, policymakers and the public understand the need to reach net zero, but less so the need for improved adaptation and resilience. One reason is that we have less clarity about the value that adaptation measures will provide.
To incentivise investment in infrastructure climate resilience, we need to understand the value it will provide us, in the same way that we understand how moving towards greener energy will ultimately lower its cost. So to fully understand the costs and value involved, HM Treasury should lead an economic review. This can then feed into developing the resiliency standards that the government previously promised in its National Resilience Framework.
Heat adaptation is one of the most critical things the UK needs to consider – many will recall last year’s record-breaking July heatwave that saw steel rail tracks buckling in the heat. But there is little in NAP3 on adapting infrastructure and buildings to extreme temperatures.
This brings us neatly to the ethical questions inherent in this issue. People rely on infrastructure systems to perform the most basic tasks. If our systems are not resilient, what are the potential implications for people?
We also know that extreme heat brings significant health risks to many people, especially the elderly, and can lead to infrastructure disruption that impacts transport and water systems.
And we know that floods cause major impacts on those living in affected regions and significant disruption to services and facilities. In a very sad example, earlier this summer, a flash flood caused by extreme rains in South Korea led to a tunnel flooding and the death of those inside.
Yoon Suk Yeol, the South Korean president, said the country needs to “completely overhaul” how it responds to extreme weather events and that “we must accept that climate change is happening and deal with it”.
More extreme heat and floods are just two examples of the climate change we will have to contend with. Not in a far-off future, but now. We must acknowledge the effects that extreme weather has on our infrastructure and on people and take urgent measures to protect lives and livelihoods.
David Smith is a fellow and sustainable resilient infrastructure community advisory board chair at the Institution of Civil Engineers