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UK infrastructure at risk from “cascade failure” due to climate change

The impact of Storm Arwen and coming climate risks to infrastructure have come under scrutiny

By Samir Jeraj

The UK’s infrastructure is increasingly at risk from “network cascading failures” brought about by climate change, according to evidence heard by parliamentarians. These challenges in keeping basic services running are likely to get worse for the UK and other countries, experts warned, as climate change will mean increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The joint committee on the National Security Strategy is running an inquiry into critical national infrastructure and climate adaptation.

It heard that during Storm Arwen in late November, disruption to the electricity grid meant that heat, water and phone services were also cut off for some people. Storm Arwen was the first “red warning” for wind issued by the Met Office since Storm Gertrude in 2016.

“It really exposed the increased connectivity between our infrastructures,” said Richard Dawson, professor of earth systems engineering at Newcastle University, who added that services are increasingly interconnected and dependent on each other. He highlighted disruption to electricity infrastructure, in particular, as a risk as the UK moves towards a net-zero future.

Part of the challenge, according to John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, is planning and working with infrastructure intended to last 50 to 100 years when the pace of climate change and of the risks associated with it is increasing. One solution to this, particularly with new infrastructure, he said, was designing it to be adaptable to increasing climate risks in the coming decades.

“What might seem very impossible or even very implausible, can happen,” said Swenja Surminski from the London School of Economics. She highlighted the interconnectedness of risks, noting that in her work preparing businesses and communities for the challenges of climate change, she encourages them to “stress test” and look at the options for several extreme events happening in quick succession or being connected to each other. “We have become much better at preparing for single events,” she said, “but there’s very little in terms of looking at a holistic response.”

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The Climate Change Committee’s assessment of UK infrastructure shows the country is not yet ready for a 2ºC degree rise in global temperatures, according to Dawson, something which the world is currently expected to exceed. He added that policymakers need to be aware of “infrastructure thresholds” that are vulnerable to extreme temperatures – but these are currently difficult to assess due to poor information about the state of much of the UK’s infrastructure. One example he gave was older railway lines that are vulnerable to extreme temperatures, which mean they have “performance tipping points” because they were designed for a different climate. There are many of these issues across the UK’s infrastructure and addressing these risks is important.

Government needs to set standards for resilience for operators and regulators to work with, said Armitt, but he added that will come at a cost to the public and that there needed to be a conversation about what risks are acceptable. “Fundamentally, it is about what standard you are prepared to meet,” he said.

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