Report calls for strategy to prevent infrastructure failure

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Engineers need a new strategy to stop widespread infrastructure failure owing to climate change, according to a report from the UK’s engineering bodies.

Problems caused by extreme weather could be made worse because Britain’s transport, power and communications systems are increasingly dependent on each other, said the government-commissioned report released today entitled ’Infrastructure, Engineering and Climate Change Adaptation — ensuring services in an uncertain future’.

This means that plans to protect infrastructure must be better co-ordinated to prevent the failure of one system causing other failures in a cascade effect.

For example, transport and water distribution rely on ICT networks, while all services rely on constant supplies of electricity.

‘The engineering profession must respond to these challenges by working in new ways,’ said the report produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering and four major professional institutes.

‘Adaptation will require new systems designed for the new climate, and UK businesses can capitalise if they can provide and demonstrate innovative solutions, taking a leading position globally in engineering for adaptation,’ it added.

Most of the technological solutions for protecting infrastructure already exist because climate change will create conditions in Britain already experienced by other countries, the report said.

Examples included the use in Britain of higher-standard road tar already used in the hotter climate of France and the use of more rain and surface water instead of letting it run off into sewers.

‘What we need is more work on the complex interactions between areas,’ said Prof Eric Sampson of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Transport Policy Panel, speaking at a press conference to mark the launch of the report.

‘For example, some work is already done on getting road and rail transport to work with each other,’ he added. ’But between transport and water and ICT, the basic engineering research science is not enough at the moment.’

This could include innovations such as building reservoirs that were also flood defences or simple ideas such as designing electronic equipment with a standby electricity supply to run in the event of a power cut.

‘Engineers have worked too much in isolation in the 20th century and need to re-engage with society and economists in a way they haven’t for 100 years,’ said David Nickols, chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Water Panel. ‘For example, training needs to cover more economics and financing as well as engineering.’

He added that, while the report did not predict the costs of protecting infrastructure in this way, he did not expect them to be dissimilar to the costs of maintaining and expanding existing systems.

‘We’re going to have to approximately double infrastructure spending over the next 10 years,’ said Nickols. ’It’s a question of how we spend it, not spending more.’

‘We need better engineering solutions rather than reactive ones,’ said Prof Will Stewart of the IET Communications Policy Panel.

The report called for more joined-up policy planning and regulation from government, but it also said the public would have to get used to problems because making infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather would mean services were less efficient.