The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (the "Committee") recently released a report examining the long-term suitability of critical national infrastructure ("CNI") - which includes power, water, transport and communications - in light of climate change. The cross-party report from senior MPs and peers, titled 'Readiness for storms ahead? Critical national infrastructure in an age of climate change' warns that CNI vulnerabilities caused by extreme weather and other climate change effects pose a significant risk to national security. The report calls for investment in adaption as part of the Government’s planned acceleration of infrastructure investment in order to combat such risks.

As noted by the Committee, the country’s CNI is “fundamental to the smooth-running of the economy and of society”. Importantly, however, such CNI is also highly vulnerable to extreme weather and other effects of climate change. The report states that there is “overwhelming evidence” that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, pointing to the unprecedented heatwave this summer as an example. The report calls for a change in attitude from considering climate change as a gradual process, to something that is in fact “hugely volatile” and can be accelerated by any number of “tipping points”.

The report warns that the impact of climate change on CNI is all too clear – pointing to:

  • wind and flooding events which, according to Network Rail, have accelerated the deterioration of the UK’s railways;
  • the risk of disruption to UK telecoms caused by high winds and lightning strikes;
  • the 2020 Stonehaven rail accident which resulted in the tragic death of three people when a train derailed after hitting debris on the track, washed from a drainage trench by heavy rainfall.

According to the Committee, we are likely to see further impacts on UK CNI in the coming years, with major power outages, landslides onto roads, buckling train lines and flooding of infrastructure sites amounting to “realistic outcomes”. The report concludes that “there is an urgent need to adapt our infrastructure to the potentially rapid effects of climate change”.

There is a focus in the report on the interdependencies between the CNI sectors which increase the likelihood of cascading crises - where the shutdown of one sector causes knock-on effects on others.  By way of example, the report points to Storm Arwen, which hit parts of North East England and Scotland in November 2021, and which exposed a key interdependency between energy and communication providers. The storm caused widespread power outages leaving some customers without access to their digital land lines for a number of days and no means of contacting emergency services. The report concludes that the wider extent of CNI interdependencies points to a critical need for infrastructure operators to share information with each other and highlights the current lack of a formal mechanism to enable this.

The Committee is highly critical of the Government, commenting on the lack of Ministerial ownership or direction in addressing the above issues, going so far as to say there has been a “severe dereliction of duty on the part of the Government”.

The Committee has recommended a number of measures to improve CNI resilience, including:

  • clear Ministerial responsibility for CNI resilience within the Cabinet Office;
  • regular meetings with the Defra Minister for Climate Adaptation;
  • the re-establishment of a dedicated Ministerial committee on resilience;
  • statutory reform and increased funding for local resilience forums (which include the emergency services, local authorities, the NHS, the Environment Agency and others), including a programme of regional ‘exercises’ to prepare for localised extreme weather events;
  • a more ambitious National Adaption Programme; and
  • the implementation of formal mechanisms to improve collaboration and information-sharing between CNI sectors, including:
    • establishing a statutory forum for CNI regulators on climate adaptation which will produce an annual report on key actions to address interdependencies and to enhance CNI resilience;
    • establishing clear resilience standards, requiring CNI operators and/or regulators to report jointly under the Adaptation Reporting Power (Climate Change Act 2008);
    • establishing a programme of stress testing CNI against extreme weather and other effects of climate change; and
    • ensuring access to high quality weather, climate and impact forecasting and modelling, via the Cabinet Office’s Situation Centre.

The message from the Committee is clear: the Government and the industry need to ramp up their efforts to tackle current issues and plan for an unpredictable future, including facilitating investment to enable the vital adaption of our country’s infrastructure.

The Chair of the Joint Committee, Dame Margaret Beckett MP, commented “this Government must finally recognise that prevention is better than cure and move on from their dangerously reactive approach to risk management.” Dame Beckett was referring to the Government formed under Liz Truss. It remains to be seen whether the new Government (formed under Rishi Sunak) will act upon such a call to arms.

Should the new Government act on the above recommendations, the industry can expect regulatory and practical changes with an increased focus on collaboration between sectors. The energy sector is one that the report has identified as a key risk and as such would be a likely first target for Government action. However, a joined-up approach is championed by the Committee so all areas of CNI may be impacted.

If you would like to discuss the report further and what you can do to prepare for potential reforms, please contact Jessica Evans or your usual Burges Salmon contact.

A full copy of the report is available here.

This article was written by Jessica Evans and Alice Willoughby.