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Climate risk to UK infrastructure: Three key fixes to improve reporting

By Cara Labuschagne

Over the last year the UK has been battered by a number of large storms. Last November, Storm Arwen brought severe winds and left over one million people without power. Heat, water and phone services were cut off for others, while around 40,000 went without power for more than three days and nearly 4,000 were cut off for more than seven days. Then, in February, storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin hit the British Isles in the space of a week, bringing heavy rain and severe winds. Three people lost their lives and disruption to roads and bridges, railway lines, airports and power infrastructure was widespread.  

These recent storms should remind us all of the disruption that extreme weather can cause. We already know, too, that climate change is altering the nature of weather-related pressures on our infrastructure and will continue to do so in the future. Winters will be wetter and rainfall heavier, heatwaves more common and more intense, and changes in the strength and frequency of storms are also possible. Prudent planning today to keep our society and our infrastructure resilient to weather extremes is vital – and particularly as our power, digital, water and transport systems become increasingly interconnected.  

Infrastructure operators are on the frontline of efforts to ensure we are resilient to the extreme weather we experience today – and to prepare for what might happen tomorrow. Given the critical role they play, the UK’s Climate Change Act allows the Government to request regular reports from these vital service providers on how they are tackling the challenges of climate change, known as the Adaptation Reporting Power (ARP). We were asked by the Government, namely the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), to review all of the reports submitted in the most recent third round of the ARP, which concluded in December. Our findings and conclusions are published today.  

First, the good news. Overall, infrastructure providers’ reports are improving in quality over time, and this ARP round has significantly bolstered our understanding of the climate risks to UK infrastructure and the progress being made in preparing for them. Most organisations who submitted a report to Government have followed best practice by assessing the risks they face based on the latest Met Office climate projections for the UK; have considered a range of plausible future climate conditions; and have a plan in place to prepare and respond.  

However, there are limitations in the current approach that are undermining the effectiveness of this process in informing UK policy on climate adaptation. Reporting in this round, and the previous one in 2016, was voluntary; there are gaps in coverage due to non-reporting; and some key sectors are not being invited to report. Reporting dates are misaligned with the Government’s adaptation policy cycle, meaning less than 5% of all reports were available to inform the third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment published earlier in 2022. And, critically, while quality has improved, many key organisations are still struggling to adequately take account of their risks from infrastructure interdependencies, which could lead to cascading failures in service provision if not addressed. Continuing to improve the ARP process is critical to ensuring that climate risk to our vital infrastructure is kept in check. Our new report includes key recommendations to ensure future rounds fully inform national climate risk planning.

The Government should:  

  1. Make it mandatory. Participation in ARP reporting is currently voluntary and one in five invited organisations did not submit a report, limiting the picture of climate preparedness across UK infrastructure, and interdependence risk. A mandatory requirement to report in the next round would help close these key gaps.  
  2. Extend the scope. Some key sectors are not currently invited to report, including canals and reservoirs, aspects of the health and social care sector, local authority infrastructure-related functions and food supply chains. Adding these to future reporting rounds would provide a more complete picture of the UK’s climate resilience.  
  3. Adjust the timeline. Misaligned timings in the UK’s climate adaptation policy cycle are preventing critical information from being incorporated into nationwide assessments of climate risk and national adaptation planning. The reporting timeline should instead be set to 2024 to inform the next UK Climate Change Risk Assessment and the associated National Adaptation Programme.  

Understanding and addressing the risks to vital infrastructure from future weather and climate is a critical part of delivering a well-adapted UK. The Adaptation Reporting Power, if optimised, can play an important role in achieving that vision.  

Cara Labuschagne is a Senior Analyst and the CCC’s Infrastructure Lead for Adaptation