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UK cities must adapt to a changing climate

Faced with heatwaves and flooding, the UK needs to invest in resilient infrastructure alongside cutting its carbon emissions.

We do not need to look very far to see the real-life impacts of climate change. This summer, the UK experienced its hottest-ever day on record at 40.3°C, causing heat-related deaths and illness, disruption to trains, and a surge in wildfires and droughts. Thunderstorms, flash floods and torrential rain also disrupted road and train travel, risked power cuts and resulted in flooded high streets, train stations and buildings.

Climate mitigation – reducing the levels of carbon emissions in the atmosphere – is crucial to reaching net zero and limiting the effects of global warming. But alongside this, adaptation – ensuring places are resilient to the changing climate – is also vital to ensure we are prepared for the inevitable.

“When we spoke about climate change adaptation before, it was a bit of an abstract thing,” says Katherine Maxwell, head of the net zero cities team at the leading engineering professional services firm WSP. “But now, because we’re actually seeing the impact on people’s daily lives, it’s becoming a lot more real.”

Within the UK, the main climate-related dangers are floods and heavy rainfall, storms, heatwaves and droughts, and sea level rise, which impacts coastal areas. The design of major cities means that overheating is a significant risk, as they have more surfaces that absorb and retain heat like concrete, pavements and buildings, and fewer green spaces, creating an “urban heat island” effect.

One in six properties in England is also at risk of flooding. In cities, a lack of foliage means there are few porous surfaces to act “as a sponge” for surface water flooding, says Maxwell, or to cool down the atmosphere during heatwaves. Downpours can overwhelm our sewage and drainage systems, meaning streets, homes and transport infrastructure such as airports and tube stations can flood.

Such weather events cost millions of pounds every year, resulting in structural damage and the need for retrofitting and repair work. Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at the University of Oxford and a commissioner at the National Infrastructure Commission, an advisory body for government, says that the most cost-effective form of adaptation is pre-emptive. “With adaptation, it’s much cheaper to get things right up-front,” he says. “Having to retrofit things is hugely costly and having to deal with the consequences of failure has widespread effects on people and communities, when they incur the harm from climate extremes.”

[See also: Climate finance: Who pays to solve the inequality gap?]

“Designing in” features from the beginning could include installing sustainable urban drainage systems, creating more small parks to absorb surface water flooding, orientating buildings so they are shaded, using different materials in construction or planting trees to cool the area around the built environment.

The UK could learn from urban adaptation in other countries, says Maxwell. In China, authorities have set up “sponge city” neighbourhoods – parks that are designed specifically to absorb rainwater, which is then repurposed for irrigation or home use. This is essentially a sustainable drainage system at a whole-city scale.

A similar UK-based pilot project is the Counters Creek Sewer Alleviation scheme – in west London, more than 2,000 properties have reported basement sewer flooding following heavy rainfall. Thames Water worked with local councils to address this issue by installing new sustainable drainage systems using various features including rain gardens and porous asphalt on roads.

In terms of heatwaves, Transport for London has designed features into new London Underground lines – this includes having lines open to the surface at certain points and installing air conditioning. The network has also installed panels cooled by water at a disused platform in Holborn Tube station, which could be rolled out more widely to cool the platforms of deep-level lines.

Innovation aside, systemic change is also necessary to improve the UK’s climate resilience. A report from the National Infrastructure Commission in 2020 made three recommendations: setting standards of resilience, stress-testing systems, and effective planning through the development of long-term strategies. “A number of these issues are not going to be dealt with overnight,” says Hall. “It’s crucial that one has a very clear sense of direction, and a plan for achieving resilience goals on a reasonable time scale.”

On the first target, ensuring that infrastructure sectors regularly monitor and report their climate resilience is essential. “It’s important that there are targets and ways to measure what has been achieved with respect to resilience,” Hall says. “That keeps people [industries] focused and provides a degree of accountability.” Stress-testing can also ensure that industries are prepared for extreme weather events by practising what would happen in different scenarios.

WSP’s Maxwell believes that the UK government also needs to devolve more power and funding to local authorities to enable them to create tailored adaptation solutions for their areas and citizens. There should be more support to help London boroughs develop adaptation plans, undertake climate risk and vulnerability assessments, and engage with their communities on new projects.

“Having more funding does give local government much more autonomy to tailor the types of resilience projects that they need,” she says. “It just ends up with a much more localised approach.”

There is a significant role for businesses, too. The private sector – which includes some critical national infrastructure industries such as energy, transport and water – can take steps to change its own internal processes to become more climate resilient, and help realise major adaptation projects that help society as a whole.

Resilience First is a not-for-profit that helps businesses become more resilient, whether that is to climate change, a pandemic or financial instability. Martyn Link, executive director, says the organisation has several tools to help businesses, including a self-assessment resilience tool, advice for developing climate resilience plans, and guides on resilience specifically aimed at non-executive directors and senior leadership.

He says that there is less financial incentive for businesses to take part in adaptation projects than mitigation projects, as the latter are focused on technological invention, which generates revenue. However, other major incentives include boosting a business’s reputation, increasing recruitment and retention of staff, and providing purposeful, interesting work for employees.

“Adaptation might not be quite as lucrative for businesses, but they really need to bring their skill set to the table,” Link says. “Because they have the knowledge, problem-solving skills, technology, and often the finance to make these things happen.” He says that government could further entice companies through an initial “injection of funding” into adaptation projects, to make them more financially viable.

There are also inventive ways to generate finance rather than just through grants or loans, he says. For instance, tram or bus operators could add an optional “resilience levy” on to the cost of travel of 0.1 per cent. When customers choose to pay it, this would go towards specific climate adaptation projects.

Ultimately, adaptation is going to be essential to ensure we can cope with the effects of a changing climate. “It is exceptionally important to make sure that we are future-proofing our cities,” says Maxwell. “We are creative by nature, innovative and resilient, so we will find a way to do this. But resilience should never be seen as second fiddle to mitigation – they are equally important.”

[See also: The UK simply cannot afford to wait on climate change]