James Heath's speech to Utility Week Live: climate adaptation and resilience

The Commission's Chief Executive sets out key challenges facing infrastructure sectors and approaches for addressing them

Published: 17 May 2022

By: Ben Wilson

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The Commission’s Chief Executive, James Heath, today (17 May 2022) gave a keynote address at Utility Week Live on climate adaptation and resilience.

The session, held at the Birmingham NEC, explored utilities’ approaches to adaptation planning and how they are seeking to build resilience to respond to the impacts of climate change already present, as well as preparing for future impacts.

James referred to the Commission’s previous work on these questions, such as its Resilience study published in May 2020, as well as work being undertaken on surface water flooding and other topics for the next National Infrastructure Assessment.

James took part in a panel discussion following his address, the full text of which can be found below.


Thank you for the invitation to speak today. The fact we are gathered here for a keynote session on the topic of climate adaptation and resilience demonstrates its increasing salience.

The effects of climate change are already here and as the recent report from the IPCC confirmed, many of them may be irreversible. And the evidence from the Climate Change Committee’s recent independent assessment of climate change risk suggests that adaptation action is not keeping up with the worsening reality of climate risk.

What this all means is that the task of climate adaptation is now as urgent and as important as our efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Given that the National Infrastructure Commission’s role is to provide the UK government with impartial, expert advice on the major challenges facing economic infrastructure, you won’t be surprised that the subject of climate adaptation and resilience is very high up our agenda.

For those who don’t know about us, the Commission was established in 2015 and one of our core responsibilities is to carry out a National Infrastructure Assessment once every five years. These Assessments are major reports setting out an evidence-based view of long term needs across six sectors – transport, energy, water and wastewater, flood resilience, digital, and solid waste – and they make recommendations to government on how to meet these needs, including the best mix of policy, regulation and funding mechanisms.

The first Assessment was published back in July 2018. And its recommendations feature heavily in this government’s National Infrastructure Strategy.

We are currently in the middle of the analysis to inform the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2), which will be published in the autumn of 2023.

Resilience was one of the main strategic themes in the first NIA, and it will also be a pillar of NIA2 – alongside the objectives of reaching net zero and re-balancing economic growth across the UK.

Today I will offer an overview of how the Commission is thinking about climate adaptation and resilience, some of the key infrastructure challenges we see, and possible approaches to tackling them. And do so in a way that hopefully sets up the panel discussion to follow.

The Commission approaches the adaptation challenge in two parts when it comes to economic infrastructure:

  • first, how can infrastructure systems enhance society’s resilience to the effects of climate change,
  • and second, how our infrastructure itself needs to be more resilient to climate change risks.

Taking the first part, let me offer a couple of examples drawn from the Commission’s work on infrastructure’s role in mitigating the climate risks of too much and too little water.

In the first NIA, we recommended that government introduce a national resilience standard for river and coastal flooding, so that householders and businesses would know the protection standard they could expect based on the likelihood of flooding over a given time period. However, while government accepted the need for greater, multi-year investment in flood resilience, it has not so far adopted nationwide resilience standards.

In the first NIA, we also looked at the question of water resource management and how to increase resilience to drought in parts of the UK through developing additional water supply infrastructure, halving leakage and reducing per capita consumption.  The RAPID partnership between the three regulators, Ofwat, Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, was set up in response to support the development and funding of new strategic water supply options. And as Keith on our panel could no doubt say more about, the water sector is working towards these goals – with the publication in January of regional water resource plans as a major milestone.

These are both examples of infrastructure’s critical role in protecting society against key climate risks.

Now let me briefly turn to the second part of the adaptation challenge – the climate risks to infrastructure assets and services. I’ll call out two particular risk areas where further action is required.

First, the resilience of infrastructure networks to storms, high winds, and flooding. The resilience of our electricity networks to climate-related failures will become increasingly important as we electrify large parts of society and the economy – whether heat, industry or transport – in order to meet the Net Zero goal.

Electricity distribution was the area which felt the biggest strain in the recent trio of storms, which resulted in nearly 1 million homes being left without power. And these are the sort of extreme weather events that are likely to be more common in future.

For our part, the Commission has undertaken work with the Met Office and the Committee on Climate Change to review the current scientific understanding of extreme weather-related risks to the UK’s electricity generation system, as it becomes increasingly reliant on renewables. We have recently published data sets that are freely available for testing potential future electricity systems against plausible adverse weather scenarios such as periods of very low wind and sunshine.

And as part of the second National Infrastructure Assessment, we have a project looking at how to build new sources of flexibility into electricity systems as we move away from natural gas. The biggest challenge being how to store and transfer large amounts of power from the summer when demand is low to the winter when demand is higher.

The final risk area I want to quickly touch on is system failures – that is, how we ensure that complex, inter-connected infrastructure systems are organised in ways that ensure a failure of one part of the system does not jeopardise the whole. The obvious example is how electricity system failures might cause cascading risks to other infrastructure services. We saw this during the August 2019 power interruption – originally caused by a lightning strike on an electricity circuit leading to a cascade of impacts on other generators and leaving trains stranded for hours.

What are the solutions?

I’ve talked about some of the key climate adaptation challenges facing infrastructure. I will now turn to the response to these risks and how we might build greater climate resilience into infrastructure policy and planning.

When thinking about how we solve any of the challenges I’ve just described, we need two things to happen together:

  • We should ensure all new or replacement infrastructure is climate resilient so we don’t make current situation any worse.
  • But only a small proportion of infrastructure stock is new each year. A lot of the infrastructure that we’ll have in 2050 is already built. So the bigger task we face is how to adapt and retrofit our existing infrastructure to make it more climate resilient.

In doing both these tasks, we must take the opportunity to integrate adaptation into forthcoming policies such as the growth in investment in electricity generation and expansion of the distribution grid over the next 10 years. And we must seriously consider the potential for nature-based adaptations that also bring wider environmental benefits. As an example, the Commission’s current work on surface water flooding is looking at how above-the-ground interventions like sustainable drainage systems can play a bigger role in managing rainwater flows and so reducing the need for more concrete tanks and larger sewers below-the-ground.

In May 2020, the Commission published a major study on infrastructure resilience. And this included a framework to try and better integrate resilience into infrastructure policy and planning.

We considered six aspects of resilience – anticipate, resist, absorb, recover, adapt and transform – which we felt together captured the range of possible actions that government, regulators and infrastructure operators need to take to deliver more resilient infrastructure systems.

The approach starts with the need for better anticipation of future shocks by, for example, collecting data on asset condition, to improving actions to resist, absorb and recover by stress testing systems for vulnerabilities, to driving adaptation and, where necessary, transformation, by setting out long term strategies for resilience.

An important message from this work is that it is not possible or indeed desirable to stop all risks. Back to my storms example from earlier – in UK we have several hundred thousand kilometres of electricity cables that are overhead and will likely be exposed to more frequent extreme weather events. But it would be prohibitively expensive to put all these cables underground. Similarly with flooding, it is not realistic to build our way out of climate change and stop all floods from happening. This is why having effective systems in place to respond and recover from severe incidents is a critically important part of resilience planning.

Alongside the resilience framework we made a number of policy recommendations to government that:

  • It should publish a set of resilience standards for all infrastructure sectors, setting out what risks we are willing to tolerate and what households and businesses can expect from key services. These standards could apply to the different aspects of resilience I mentioned earlier – from resistance, such as standards on the annual probability of properties being flooded, to recovery, such as standards on how quickly the water supply should be restored in the event of a supply loss. Some of what is needed is already in place – but there is still scope for significant improvements.
  • Our second recommendation is that regulators should be given explicit duties to promote the resilience of their sectors, including ensuring that price review decisions on investment levels are consistent with meeting the resilience standards. This will involve difficult decisions about what costs society is willing to bear, where and when.

Improving the resilience of our infrastructure will carry a cost. But it will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences. In the long run it should be better value for money to build resilience into the lifecycle of asset development and maintenance, rather than respond to major events. Analysis the Commission has undertaken shows the cost of sticking at current levels of resilience and paying for emergency responses to extreme drought would cost around £40bn over the next 30 years, almost double the cost of upgrading the UK’s water system to help mitigate that risk.

  • And that brings me to our third recommendation, that infrastructure operators should develop long-term resilience strategies and carry out regular stress tests to identify vulnerabilities and ensure systems meet resilience standards, overseen by the regulators.

In my last minute before I hand back to James, I should say that government has been broadly positive about our work on resilience. While they have avoided firm commitments so far, government has accepted the thrust of our recommendations in principle, and we will see how that translates in the National Resilience Strategy due later this year.

The Commission will continue to engage with government, regulators and infrastructure operators on all these important questions and, as part of NIA2, we are conducting further work on the costs to infrastructure of climate adaptation and on improving asset management.

Thank you.

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