Climate Change and UK Infrastructure: “A Cascade of Risks”

In a 2,000-page report, the Climate Change Committee outlines clearly that the UK is ill-prepared for the impact of long term climate change on our communities. Critical infrastructure could be destroyed by flooding, while soil quality will deplete through poor, overly intensive farming and land management.

Its 80 authors offer up the most comprehensive view yet of climate change risk facing the UK. We examine the key points:

Painting a bleak picture of heat related deaths, changing coastlines, water shortages, ecosystem damage and shocks to the global food system, the report bases its projections on the assumption that governments keep promises made at the Paris climate conference to cut emissions.

If there is any room for doubt on this commitment, then spiralling emissions could lead to an unstoppable series of risks.

Professor John Krebs, the Chairman of the Committee’s adaptation sub-committee spoke of a “cascade of risks” especially concerning infrastructure, where one issue then affects the other.

Krebs said: “the delivery of fuel to power stations might be affected by flooding which would then affect electricity. If bridges are affected by flooding then they carry electricity cables and communications infrastructure, so we have to look not just at how each piece of infrastructure works but how they interact together.”

Food and farming stresses

UK shoppers could face higher food bills as imported crops like soya are harmed by heat or drought. While there may be an opportunity to grow new crops in a warming climate, the soil quality could affect yields as surface runoff from extreme localised downpours could strip surface nutrients. This would reduce yields each year in an ongoing cycle.

It says farming in the UK might benefit from more warmth but warns that soils are likely to dry out quicker, and that rain is more likely to arrive in unhelpful downpours.

The committee also says some of the UK’s most fertile land, such as the peat fields of the East Anglian Fens, are suffering badly from decades of intensive farming.

Prof Krebs said 85% of the peat had been washed or blown away, and the rest would follow in coming decades unless farmers were more careful: “We have lost a lot of the natural asset that allows us to grow cereals and climate change will accelerate the rate of loss. We could lose the remaining fertile soil within the next 30-60 years and that would be a huge negative impact on the food production capacity of the UK.”

More sustainable measures needed

In the Opposition Brexit Environment Debate this week, Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, spoke up for more sustainable measures for both housing and farming to try and mitigate severe flood events. She highlighted the need for better drainage, including the use of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS), more riparian planting and green farming, so that water is managed better locally and not passed downstream to create greater problems elsewhere.

Sustainable housing means better drainage, but also better heat conservation and ventilation. With maximum temperatures in the South East that could reach 48C at the top end of estimations, our housing stock is woefully poor at ventilation. The committee forecasts a risk to the health of elderly people in homes, hospitals and care homes.

During the House of Lords reading of this year’s Housing Bill, Prof Krebs said he had tried to insert rules in recent housing legislation to oblige builders to ensure adequate ventilation, but the government deemed these onerous to business.

He said: “More heatwaves in the UK are also likely, yet there are no comprehensive policies in place aimed at reducing the risk of overheating in new and existing homes.”

Specific impacts:

Well understood, it already causes £1bn of damage every year on average but the risks will rise yet further as climate change leads to more intense rainfall, bringing floods to places not currently in danger. The numbers of households at significant risk of flooding will more than double to 1.9m by 2050, if the global temperature rises by 4C.

Water shortages
Severe shortages are expected as summers get drier and, by the 2050s, will extend across the UK. If temperatures are driven up significantly, many places in the UK will have a demand for water 2.5 times greater than that available.

Natural environment
Ongoing coastal erosion is attacking our adjacent communities, businesses and infrastructure, while public water supply deficits will impact on freshwater ecology, water for agriculture, energy generation and industry.
Prof Piers Forster, from the University of Leeds, said: “The UK gets off lighter than many countries but this important report confirms that we are already seeing damage to homes, businesses and livelihoods.

The report will inform the government’s climate change adaptation strategy, due in 2018. Ministers are about to publish their National Flood Resilience Review.