Wide-ranging report warns UK's 'robust historic resilience' under threat from climate change and growing risk of unanticipated shocks
"The past is not always the best guide to the future". That is the stark warning at the heart of a wide ranging new report from the independent National Infrastructure Commission, which warns the "robust historic resilience" of the UK's infrastructure is facing mounting pressure from both escalating climate impacts and unanticipated shocks such as the health crisis currently afflicting the country.
The government-appointed Commission has today published a new framework setting out how the country's infrastructure can better "resist, absorb and recover from shocks". Specifically, the report sets out how new standards should be developed to provide appropriate service levels, how stress testing to prepare for major incidents should become more widespread, and how utilities should be provided with clearer direction to ensure they invest in long term resilience.
Entitled Anticipate, React, Recover: Resilient Infrastructure Systems, the report draws on an evidence base compiled before the coronavirus crisis struck and stresses that "it is too early to fully assess and learn lessons from the ongoing crisis".
However, the report does highlight how effective risk management and increased investment in resilience can help ensure infrastructure is able to continue to provide key services in the face of unexpected and predicted crises.
The report draws on examples such as the widescale power outage of August 2019 that was caused by a lightning strike and the various incidents of flooding experienced in the UK in recent years. It also highlights the risk of catastrophic climate-related events, exploring the impact on New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and how a failure to adapt infrastructure to respond to a changing climate and population growth can undermine resilience.
The Commission acknowledges the UK has a relatively good track record for infrastructure resilience compared to many other countries, but warns this resilience "may be challenged in future by a range of factors that will not always be possible to foresee, alongside better understood challenges like climate change".
Sir John Armitt, chair of the Commission, said the report should inform the government's long term response to the coronavirus crisis. "The Commission pays tribute to all those who are helping to minimise the impact to infrastructure during this period, often at significant personal risk," he said. "While this report draws on evidence collected before the pandemic, this study can inform thinking about the recovery and help ensure that we can be resilient to future challenges.
"To safeguard the systems our communities rely on, everyone involved in running infrastructure needs to anticipate and prepare for potential future challenges. The framework proposed in our report offers the tools to face uncomfortable truths, value resilience properly, test for vulnerabilities and drive adaptation before it is too late."
The report recommends the government should set clearer resilience standards for infrastructure operators, and introduce stress tests overseen by regulators similar to those employed in the financial sector.
In addition, operators should be required to develop and maintain long term resilience strategies, and regulators should ensure their determinations support achieving the prescribed resilience standards, the Commission said.
It also recommended that resilience strategies should be built around six core principles: anticipate, resist, absorb, recover, adapt, and transform.
Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, said the UK's infrastructure resilience would come under increased pressure in the coming years and decades as climate impacts escalate.
"The climate emergency means shocks to the economy from record weather events are following each other with increasing speed," she said. "Creating more resilient infrastructure, and building back better after a climate-induced shock, doesn't just reduce risks, it's an economic opportunity too. This report will help people better understand that opportunity."
Her comments were echoed by Simon Collins, chair of business group Resilience First, who said businesses across the country had demonstrated how resilient and adaptable they are able to be in recent months. "But we need to be able to rely on infrastructure to support us in facing whatever the future holds," he added. "The Commission's framework provides a roadmap for achieving just that and I urge government, regulators and businesses to consider its lessons and get to work on implementing them."
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