Buildings and infrastructure ill-prepared for changing climate

The resilience of transport networks, homes, hospitals and water supplies in England need to be enhanced to counter the more frequent and severe flooding and heatwaves that can be expected in future. This is the key finding of a new report by the government’s official adviser on preparing for climate change.

Avoiding overheating in buildings

The Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change is calling for a new building standard to be introduced to prevent an increase in the number of premature deaths that could result from homes and buildings overheating. Premature deaths from overheating could triple to 7,000 per year by the 2050s, as average temperatures rise and combined with an ageing and more vulnerable population. Extreme temperatures during severe heatwaves could have an even greater impact on people’s health and well-being.

The Committee found that new homes are being designed for yesterday’s climate, and not with the health impacts of higher temperatures in mind. One-fifth of homes could already be overheating, even in a cool summer. Forthcoming research from Cambridge University will also conclude that 90% of hospital wards are of a type prone to overheating, even in today’s climate.

The Committee is recommending that cost-effective solutions, such as improved ventilation, tinted windows, and external insulation, should begin to be installed in new and existing homes, hospitals and care homes to limit the health impacts of higher temperatures.

Protecting vital infrastructure services

The storms of last winter highlighted the costs, damages and disruption that extreme weather can cause to homes, businesses and vital services. The Committee found that positive action is being taken to avoid future disruption to power supplies, and to some extent to train services, that could arise from severe weather. In other areas plans were found to be lacking. Infrastructure providers could not always explain how storms and flooding had affected their services in the past, or what steps have been taken to address potential vulnerabilities.

The Committee recommends that the comprehensive approach put in place by the power sector to protect their networks from severe weather should be adopted by water companies, for major roads, ports and airports, and by telecommunications providers.

Investing in flood defence to avoid future damage

Past investment in flood defences, and recent improvements in forecasting, early warning and flood emergency planning, helped limit the impacts of the tidal surge in December 2013 – the largest in sixty years. These efforts must be stepped up to prevent more damage in future as sea levels rise and development in the floodplain continues.

Limited budgets mean that three-quarters of existing flood defence structures are not being adequately maintained. Regulations to avoid surface water flooding caused by new development should be introduced, after repeated delay. This was recommended six years ago by the Pitt Review.

More must also be done by local councils to manage local flood risk. They should make sure that statutory local flood risk management plans and strategies are published, and agreed actions are taken. They should also enforce rules to avoid continuing loss of gardens to hard surfacing.

Lord John Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, said:

“The impacts of climate change on the UK in the decades ahead are likely to include rising sea levels, more flooding, summer heatwaves, and perhaps more frequent storms and droughts.

“We have found good evidence of positive action being taken in a number of areas to safeguard public health and the economy from the impacts of climate change. Despite the disruption experienced by many in the storms this winter, the impacts would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for past investment in flood defences, and in flood forecasting and emergency planning. This is a clear demonstration of the benefits that result from investing in greater resilience, but there is no room for complacency.

“As our report highlights, there is more to be done to counter the increasing risks of severe weather that are likely to be associated with climate change. As well as making vital infrastructure services more resilient to flooding and storms, the country needs to adapt homes and other buildings so they are suitable for higher summer temperatures.”

Professor David Balmforth, Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Flood Expert and Vice President, said:

“The Committee rightly highlights the growing need for a more comprehensive approach to UK flood resilience, particularly one that better reflects interdependencies – or the “domino effect” that can be felt across energy, transport, water and waste networks when a flood defence is overwhelmed. This disruption results in an even greater impact on society and the economy.”

Notes to editors

  • The Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change was established under the 2008 Climate Change Act to provide the government with independent, evidence-based advice on preparing for climate change. The Committee consists of experts from the fields of science, engineering, economics, urban planning and public health, and is chaired by Professor Lord Krebs.
  • This is the third in a series of annual reports from the Adaptation Sub-Committee exploring what should be done in England to prepare for climate change. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate adaptation programmes.
  • The report also assesses the impact of climate change to businesses and on the country’s capability to respond to weather-related emergencies. The report found that:
    • Businesses that fail to anticipate climate change risk their own failure. Some large multi-national businesses are taking steps to assess and manage the risk to their facilities and supply chains from climate change, but there is little evidence of this happening among smaller companies. Businesses should check insurance arrangements for severe weather, prepare business continuity plans, and work with their UK and overseas suppliers to assess and manage the risk of weather-related disruption to supply chains. Businesses in flood risk areas should sign up for the Environment Agency’s flood warning service, and consider moving stock and vulnerable equipment out of harm’s way.
    • The government should also consider gaps in knowledge regarding the national capability to manage severe weather incidents, and the cumulative impacts of spending cuts across emergency responder organisations. The balance of weather-related risks across community risk registers, particularly drought, would benefit from further independent scrutiny.
    • The ASC’s previous reports considered the risk of flooding and water scarcity with climate change (2012), and the ability of the land to continue to produce and deliver essential goods and services including food, fibre and forestry, carbon storage and coast protection (2013).
    • Next summer the Committee will present its first statutory report to Parliament on the action being taken by the government and others to prepare for climate change.
    • The independent Pitt Review was commissioned by the government following the widespread flooding in England in 2007.
    • #ASC2014