Climate-proofing the UK's infrastructure must be a government priority

clock • 4 min read

National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt writes exclusively for BusinessGreen on the critical importance of meeting SDG9

Throughout history, human beings have used infrastructure to master our environment. Early civilizations constructed aqueducts to provide settlements with a drinking supply. Our ancestors harnessed the power of water and wind to create mills for irrigating crops and grinding wheat. Bridges and tunnels connect us. Thanks to the gas and power grids, we domesticated the winter and the night, bringing heat to our homes and illuminating the darkness with electricity supplying light around-the-clock.  

Today climate change is our biggest challenge. It demands we overhaul the systems we rely on to go about our daily lives. Not just to reach net zero, but to protect families and businesses from increasingly frequent extreme weather.

Last month saw temperatures hit the high thirties, with the mercury reaching 38.7C in Cambridge. Updated analysis of Met Office records shows that the UK's 10 warmest years since 1884 have all occurred since 2002. And, while hosepipe bans have been considered in the South, severe flooding has disrupted parts of the Midlands and the North.

These events, which would have been considered exceptional in the past, will soon be recognised as the new normal. They offer us a glimpse into the future and underline the urgency of ensuring our infrastructure operates in a sustainable way.

It's clear to me that we find ourselves at a critical juncture. A year ago, we published the UK's first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment. Looking ahead to the next three decades, it sets out recommendations on transport, energy, recycling, water, flood management, and digital connectivity.

To put us on track to eradicate carbon emissions by 2050, the government must make implementing our proposals a priority. 

By 2030, half of our power should come from renewable sources, as part of a transition to a highly renewable energy mix.

Progress is needed in assessing the viability of clean alternatives to natural gas, to determine a solution to how we're going to decarbonise heat by the mid-2020s.   

We're calling for an additional £43bn and further powers to be devolved to cities outside London, to transform public transport in urban areas.  

And, we need a truly national, visible charging network for electric vehicles to encourage drivers to switch from petrol and diesel.

While we take steps to limit climate change, we must also build our defences against its effects. As we have seen this summer, these aren't distant threats far out on the horizon, the impact is already being felt.

Flooding is becoming more likely, so the government must commit to a national standard of flood resilience, to shield communities from the devastation it can bring. 

Efforts should also be made to shore up our water supplies. It might seem improbable to those living in conspicuously wet northern counties, but for some parts of southern England, drought is a very real prospect.

Alongside tackling leakages, this will require new reservoirs and a national network to transfer water from places in surplus to areas where it's needed.

The Commission is currently working on an in-depth study of the resilience of the UK's infrastructure - including its ability to withstand natural hazards - and we will report our findings next spring.

Now we have a new Cabinet and their credibility on climate change will soon be under the spotlight. In the autumn, we expect their response to our Assessment in the form of a National Infrastructure Strategy - another first for the country. This will be a key test against which we will score Britain's progress towards meeting the ninth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG).

Of course, re-engineering our infrastructure won't be simple, but the government isn't starting with a blank slate. Our report provides the blueprint. Now it needs ambition, leadership and action.  

We don't want vague promises or a restatement of existing commitments. The strategy should set out clear goals with a timeline for achieving them. It has to take a long-term perspective, looking beyond the immediate Spending Review period all the way to 2050. It must include agreement to invest 1.2 per cent of GDP a year in infrastructure - the upper limit of the agreed guideline set by the Treasury.

Crucially, it must signal a genuine commitment to change. If we're going to achieve net zero by the middle of the century, ministers can't afford to take their eye off the ball for a second. Indeed, successive governments have to drive this forward with determination and concerted effort over decades.

The Sustainable Development Goals remind us we don't bear the responsibility of tackling climate change alone. It doesn't rest solely with one nation or even those living in the present. We need to unite behind this endeavour beyond borders and across generations.

When the NIC was established, it was something that had never been done before. Nowhere in the world had a public body previously reviewed a country's infrastructure needs on the scale that we have, looking across sectors and so far into the future.

With our expertise in engineering and technology, Britain is well placed to become a serious global player in sustainable infrastructure.

In an uncertain post-Brexit world, this is a welcome opportunity. The government must seize it.

Sir John Armitt is chair of the National Infrastructure Commission

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