The Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog

UK critical infrastructure at high risk of damage from climate change, MPs warn

Image credit: George Tsiagalakis

Climate change is putting some of Britain’s critical infrastructure at risk and ministers have so far failed to prepare enough for extreme weather events, a parliamentary enquiry has warned.

In recent years, the UK has faced extreme weather events due to climate change including droughts, wildfires and floods. The country faced six major storms over the past year, including some of the highest wind speeds recorded in over 30 years.

A report from the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy suggests that failures at the top of government could worsen the potential impact of extreme weather in the future.

In recent years, wind and flooding have had a significant effect on the UK’s railways, accelerating asset deterioration and increasing the likelihood of “critical coping thresholds” for railway operators being exceeded, such as on rail temperatures or drainage capacity.

UK telecoms is also at risk from “all types of flooding, high winds and lightning strikes”, the report said, and our energy supply can be disrupted by a range of severe weather events, particularly storms.

Without further investment in water storage or transfer infrastructure, along with action to reduce demand, there is estimated to be a one in four chance of severe drought before 2050.

Additional “cascading” risks, which spread from one infrastructure sector to another, could magnify the impact of an event. Storm Arwen, which occurred in late 2021, led to extended power and communication outages; the summer heatwave also caused power cuts and transport disruptions.

The Committee said that instead of considering climate change as a gradual or predictable process, the government should treat it as “hugely volatile”, and appreciate that “what might seem impossible and even implausible can happen, and it can happen tomorrow”.

The Adaptation Committee of the Climate Change Committee has highlighted a number of vulnerabilities that the UK’s critical national infrastructure currently faces.

Flooding is set to become more frequent and severe, affecting infrastructure including energy, transport, water, waste and digital communication.

Projected extended periods of rainfall will also increase the risk of slope and embankment failure – approximately 8 per cent of the UK’s transport network is at medium to high risk of landslide disruption.

Changes in rainfall, combined with population growth, will also lead to supply-demand deficits in some water resource zones by the 2050s, with widespread deficits by the 2080s.

High temperatures are expected to cause “railway tracks to buckle, electricity cables to sag, signalling equipment to overheat and fail”, and “road tarmac to soften and rut”.

Meanwhile, increases in maximum wind speeds during storms are likely to have “significant implications for overhead power lines, data network cabling and the rail network, as well as for offshore infrastructure and wind turbines”.

The Committee called on the government to appoint a minister of state for infrastructure resilience with a team within the Cabinet Office to focus on the issue across a range of national security threats and hazards.

A government spokesperson said: “There are robust systems in place to protect critical national infrastructure from the effects of climate change. This includes work through the national adaptation programme led by Defra, and the National Infrastructure Commission led by HMT.

“In the Cabinet Office, we have created a standardised approach to help departments capture and mitigate risks to critical infrastructure.”

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