Study Sounds Alert on UK Infrastructure’s Exposure to Climate Change

Vital parts of the UK’s infrastructure are being neglected, with potentially severe impacts on national competitiveness and quality of life, according to a study by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

Energy networks, transport, waste and water are all vulnerable, while the country’s level of flood defences is judged to be increasingly inadequate. At the same time, future risks to essential national services are intensifying, as more extreme weather under climate change threatens more floods, droughts, fiercer storms and other more unpredictable weather increases the challenges to infrastructure.

The ICE report produced a UK-wide score-card grading key aspects of infrastructure according to whether it was fit for purpose, required attention or was at risk. The Institution has conducted ‘state of the nation’ reports annually since 2000.

The report urges ministers to address the problems, in order to safeguard the UK’s economic competitiveness, which relies heavily on having reliable national infrastructure. Hundreds of billions of pounds are likely to be needed in investment over the next decade, much of it in energy.

Local transport fared worst in the assessment, being judged at risk of serious failure, and the government was advised to make clearing the backlog of essential road maintenance a clear spending priority. Flood management was also graded as ‘requiring attention’.

Energy also gained a C minus grade in the judging, meaning it also required government attention, while waste services came out only slightly better, but also requiring government intervention.

Water was one of the two highest graded services, gaining a B, meaning it was currently fit for purpose but could face challenges in future. Strategic transport comprising airports and major rail links and motorways was also judged ‘adequate for now’.

Last winter’s floods in many areas of the UK were highlighted as an example of the costly and damaging interruptions that can strike homes and businesses. Although such natural disasters are always a risk, the resulting damage can be mitigated if essential services are well-prepared and precautions have been taken to make transport, communications, water and energy networks more resilient, the report says.

The ICE also warned of a domino effect whereby the failure of one aspect of infrastructure such as flood defences then has a damaging impact on energy, water, transport and waste networks. This has not been sufficiently taken into account in providing such services, the organisation warned.

At the same time, the report acknowledges that making all infrastructure fully proofed against all possible shocks was not feasible, and that trade-offs would have to be made between full reliability and the likelihood of damage.

Keith Clarke, vice president at ICE, commented on the report’s findings. “The public expect a certain level of service. Government ultimately bears the risk for the resulting impact,” he said.

“It is becoming clear that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and it is time that factors such as availability, resilience, and the domino effect are rooted into the criteria used to make decisions on which projects go ahead, so new infrastructure is more future-proofed.”

Earlier this week,
a bipartisan group warned of the threat to US businesses from climate change
in a report entitled
‘Risky Business’


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