An unprecedented effort will be needed to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, but it is clear that we cannot focus all of our strengths on emissions. Even if we are successful in meeting this ambitious target, the effects of climate change will continue to be experienced with increasing intensity over the coming decades. Adaptation to a changed climate is therefore crucial to preserving quality of life and the continuance of business and industry through increasingly extreme weather.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is undertaking an extensive project on adaptation. And Engineering the Future, a broad alliance of professional engineering organisations including the IMechE and the Royal Academy of Engineering, has investigated the importance of engineering in adapting infrastructure for resilience to climate change. The group is publishing its findings in a report entitled Infrastructure, Engineering and Climate Change Adaptation. The consensus is that, while there is much that engineers can and must do, their work must be combined with changes in the regulatory and policy framework, and with a contribution on the part of wider society.
Although the expected impacts of climate change in the UK will not lead to conditions more extreme than those dealt with elsewhere in the world, countries so affected have had decades, indeed centuries, to build their infrastructure appropriately. In the UK, we need to adapt our infrastructure within 40 years, at a time when we will also be remodelling it to reduce carbon emissions. The engineering and economic challenges are huge.
Many technical solutions are available, including smart meters and grids, smart buildings with natural ventilation and intelligent pipework for the water system. However, even if these changes are made, the effects of weather on the infrastructure may still lead to degradation of service. A resilient infrastructure will cost more and a completely robust infrastructure, even if it is achievable, will cost considerably more. Providers are unlikely to be willing to pay for adaptations unless costs can be recovered from customers, but will customers be willing to pay more for resilience? Given the high costs, those who depend on the infrastructure must accept that it cannot be completely failure proof in the face of a changing climate.
As well as conveying this message to society, we need a better understanding of the social changes that are likely as a result of climate change. For example, the net effects of increased homeworking on the energy, ICT and transport infrastructure are unknown. To what extent will electric vehicles be adopted, and can we provide the necessary charging infrastructure?
We can build a better, more resilient infrastructure, but it will be expensive, difficult, and will require a strategic approach. The Treasury has produced the National Infrastructure Plan 2010, and this must be followed up with the detailed plans, policy and regulations required to encourage investment in adaptation measures. But we must all be willing to adapt our lives to a changing climate.