POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology)
Infrastructure and climate change
Key infrastructure areas such as transport, energy, water and telecoms are vital to society and the economy. Evidence suggests that climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, posing a risk to infrastructure systems. This POSTnote looks at the main climate-related risks to the UK’s economic infrastructure, measures to reduce these risks and the main challenges to implementing resilience measures.
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- Infrastructure and climate change (PDF, 372 KB)
Definitions of infrastructure vary, however the term ‘economic infrastructure’ is often used to describe the transport, energy, telecoms, water, waste management and flood risk management sectors. 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). Long-term changes in average climate can reduce the capacity and efficiency of certain infrastructure types, while in the short-term, extreme weather events can cause failure and disruption of essential services. A recent example is the July 2019 European heatwave, which resulted in extensive disruption across UK railways.
- Climate change and extreme weather pose a risk to infrastructure by decreasing its capacity and efficiency and causing direct damage to assets and systems.
- The 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.
- A broad policy and legislative framework exists in the UK to increase the resilience of infrastructure, with responsibilities for resilience shared between Government, local authorities, regulators and infrastructure operators.
- Infrastructure sectors are usually 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.
- Both the level of planning and implementation of measures to increase resilience varies between sectors and can involve both technical and strategic measures.
- In some sectors, regulators offer incentives for infrastructure operators to improve the resilience of their assets. For example, Ofgem (the energy regulator) offers financial rewards for electricity and gas companies that meet certain performance targets.
- Uncertainties in future climate projections and socio-economic trends mean that planning for and implementing appropriate adaptation measures can be challenging.
- Stakeholders have highlighted that a further challenge in this area is a lack of collaboration between infrastructure sectors, which limits providers’ understanding of risks arising from interdependencies.
- Planning and decision-making strategies have been designed to help facilitate effective action under uncertainty, whilse measures that deliver co-benefits can help incentivise investment in resilience measures.
- 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 2020.
POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:
- Amy Cox, Institution of Civil Engineers*
- Andrew Russell, Committee on Climate Change*
- Andy Limbrick, Energy UK*
- Ben Ramster, Institution of Civil Engineers*
- Cabinet Office*
- Casey Saddler, Energy Networks Association
- Colin Holm, Highways England*
- Daniel Johns, Anglian Water*
- David Style, Committee on Climate Change*
- Dean Kerwick-Chrisp, Highways England*
- Department for Transport*
- Dr Maria Pregnolato, University of Bristol*
- Dr Ruth Wood, University of Manchester*
- Dr Suryanarayanan Krishnaswamy, Cranfield University
- Gemma Holmes, Committee on Climate Change*
- Hayley Bowman, Environment Agency*
- HM Treasury*
- Hugo Winter, EDF
- India Redrup, Energy UK*
- John Dora, Climate Sense & Infrastructure Adaptation Forum*
- Juliet Mian, Arup*
- Lisa Constable, Network Rail*
- Mark Dunk, Energy Networks Association*
- Matt Crossman, National Infrastructure Commission*
- Matthew Pluke, Anglian Water*
- Members of the POST Board
- Michael McLaughlin, National Grid ESO*
- Michael Salter-Church, Openreach*
- Mike Leppard, Energy Network Association*
- Mike Steel, Environment Agency*
- Peter Kocen, Energy Networks Association*
- Prof Colin Taylor, University of Bristol*
- Prof Dimitry Val, Heriot-Watt University
- Prof Guy Howard, University of Bristol
- Prof Jason Lowe, Met Office & University of Reading*
- Prof Jim Hall, University of Oxford*
- Prof Liz Varga, University College London*
- Prof Richard Dawson, University of Newcastle & Committee on Climate Change*
- Sarah Winne, Ramboll
*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.
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