Adjusting to the new normal: why the world needs green infrastructure

Prepare for the next storm, not the last.

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“THE WORLD’S ON FIRE” said The Sun’s front page on 25 July. “BRITAIN’S IN MELTDOWN!” said the Daily Mail’s. It was the UK’s joint hottest summer on record and the driest since 1921. The Environment Agency responded to a 330 per cent increase in drought-related incidents. The problems were not unfamiliar to us, there were just a lot more of them. All at once.

Such summers are soon expected to become the norm here, which we will have to adapt to. But, if that’s the new normal, what of the new extremes?

The Paris Agreement shows that the international community – with regrettable exceptions – realises we must reduce carbon emissions, but this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said even if we limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (which is unlikely), the dangers will continue to conflagrate.

Around the world people’s ability to cope with hotter days, fiercer fires, bigger storms, rising and more acidic seas, shifting crop patterns, and the spread of tropical diseases into uplands and formerly temperate zones, will vary hugely depending on the strength of their existing regional systems.

Is a common, global understanding of “resilience” possible when people live in so many different circumstances and experience so many different threats at different times? Maybe, maybe not, but because of those differences, people have diverse strengths in managing risks.

Whether we live in developed economies or emerging markets, we are all failing to adequately pool our knowledge – in terms of managing nature, building infrastructure, and organising logistics – to prepare for dangers that, in many cases, someone is already dealing with somewhere else.

That’s a problem, but it also allows us to be optimistic. Last month, the Global Commission on Adaptation was launched to accelerate preparations for the physical risks of climate change. I was asked to be the UK commissioner because of my 25 years working in finance, and because I am chair of the Environment Agency, where I regularly meet world-class experts in the business of protecting people from nature and protecting nature from people.

The Global Commission, which is led by Ban Ki-moon (eighth secretary-general of the UN), Kristalina Georgieva (CEO of the World Bank), and Bill Gates, is an opportunity to show how adapting to climate change can improve people’s wellbeing and drive action on food security, rural livelihoods, infrastructure, and urban resilience, among other things. It will demonstrate, through economic analysis and case studies, that the costs of adapting are often less than the costs of business as usual, and the benefits many times larger.

There are huge benefits to preparing for the physical risks of climate change and these go beyond governments’ basic responsibilities towards citizens. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said in April: “Financing the transition to a low-carbon economy is a major opportunity for investors and creditors. It implies a sweeping technological revolution, including investments in long-term infrastructure at roughly quadruple the current rate.”

For New York City, watershed management has saved $5bn in capital costs and $300m annually. On the border of Brazil and Paraguay, returns on investment in soil conservation have significantly extended the life expectancy of the Itaipu Dam, paving the way for greater energy security. In China, improved land management and watershed restoration on the Loess Plateau has eliminated the need for drought-related emergency food aid to a region that is home to 50m people. Restoring mangroves in Vietnam for storm defence has enhanced sea defences and improved the livelihoods of people using local resources.

In England, there are currently around 5.2m homes at risk of flooding – roughly one in six. On 5 December 2015, 341.4mm of rain fell in 24 hours at Honister Pass in the Lake District. As record rainfall events increase, international partnership with countries that already experience such extremes is important for helping us improve our own resilience and for developing skills in the national economy.

We also have a lot to offer. We improve defences like the Thames Barrier by exchanging expertise with professionals who operate such structures all over the world as part of The International Network for Storm Surge Barriers. We work with the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia to stay on the cutting edge of flood forecasting and warning. We share information on our emergency response capability with Rijkswaterstaat in the Netherlands.

No man is an island, and no island can hold back the sea forever with concrete walls. Green infrastructure complements grey infrastructure by creating a buffer, prolonging the lifespan of traditional defences, something else we are learning about together with the Dutch.

Of course, preparing for the new normal requires much more than collaboration between government agencies. Everyone needs to act: from individuals who need to adapt their homes so they can return home quickly after a storm, to global corporations who must reduce their carbon emissions and protect supply chains.

Climate resilience means preparing for the next storm, not the last one; recovery must always be aiming at a better version of normal. In Bangladesh, deaths from tropical cyclones declined more than 100-fold in 40 years, from 500,000 deaths in 1970 to just over 4,000 in 2007. This was achieved by developments in early warning systems, cyclone shelters, evacuation plans, coastal embankments, reforestation schemes, increased awareness and communication.

The Global Commission will present its report and recommendations in September 2019. Earlier this year, more than a million people were displaced by floods in northeast India and Bangladesh. Internationally, people have a lot to learn in order to adapt and be more climate resilient, but there’s no time to lose: the physical risks of climate change are already here.

Emma Howard Boyd is chair of the Environment Agency and UK commissioner for the Global Commission on Adaptation.