Opinion: UK’s crumbling infrastructure is unable to deal with climate change

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The army was drafted in to avoid a collapse of the Whaley Bridge dam in Derbyshire. Photo credit: PA.

By Anders Lorenzen

On the 9th of August several parts of England suffered severe power cuts with an estimated one million properties impacted, hundreds of trains cancelled and large crowds of commuters stranded at some of London’s busiest train stations. In Scotland, trains were cancelled due to waterlogged rail tracks and high winds.

This happened just two weeks after the Whaley Bridge Dam in Derbyshire nearly collapsed following intense rainfalls. and one month after the UK recorded its all-time high-temperature record.

In the context of all this, it seems reasonable to ask the question – how prepared is the UK’s infrastructure for the impacts of climate change?

The Grid

This month’s power outage is an embarrassment for the National Grid. They have been quick to put the blame on the energy companies RWE and Orsted which run a gas power plant and offshore wind farm which failed simultaneously causing a grid outage. But this double failure only equated to a total of 5% of grid capacity, how can such a relatively small drop result in a power outage of that magnitude?

The job of a grid operator is to balance supply and demand with weather patterns and consumer behaviour, which fluctuate all the time. One expects a modern grid operator to be an expert in managing such fluctuations, esp as, as the effects of climate change accelerate, there will only be more pressure them with extreme weather events able to put plants out of action or add an unexpected amount of capacity at very short notice.

The reality is that, whilst there have been some upgrades to the UK grid, it remains inefficient and outdated. Especially in the context of the move away from a fossil fuel-based baseload energy supply system to one more intermittent with renewables, which will require a huge investment in smart grid technology, energy storage and strong interconnectors to our European neighbours.

Transport

Our transport infrastructure is crumbling and increasingly vulnerable to weather anomalies. Many are frustrated by the cancellation of trains, timetables not being upheld and weather-related challenges. The UK should look abroad at well-functioning train networks in France, Spain, Germany and Scandinavia and see what can be learned; these countries have managed to keep fares down while continuously updating and modernising the trains, infrastructure and the system.

Whaley Bridge

Intense rainfall led to the near-collapse of Whaley Bridge Dam, despite regular inspections. Does this signal that the infrastructure of projects like these are not prepared for the onslaught of climate change? It is precisely extreme weather patterns such as intense rainfall that scientists are warning the UK will battle with as the planet continues to warm. It might be unfair to make an example out of Whaley Bridge, but government organisations like DEFRA and the Environment Agency must make sure that our infrastructure is prepared for such events so they do not take us by surprise. Investing in the necessary spending now is far cheaper than repairing once the damage is done.

Climate change must be mitigated by urgently reducing emissions, but we must also urgently adapt to its effects which are coming at us quicker than we expected, particularly in the UK.

In the blindspot of Brexit, which of course will make adapting and fighting climate change so much harder, we must make sure that these isles are not forgetting about that.

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world and should do more to make these upfront investments. In the wake of the uncertainty of Brexit, this is even more important as of yet we do not know what joint EU partner programmes we will continue to be part of. Investing in adapting to climate change is not as exciting as many other things, but is arguably the most important investments these Isles can make. If we don’t it might come back and bite us.

 

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