Comment

21.04.17

Clean growth and the role of UK infrastructure

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

A renewal of the UK’s infrastructure – from telecommunications to energy, roads and buildings – rightly sits as one of the pillars of the government’s Industrial Strategy. But how can we ensure the infrastructure of tomorrow is fit for the future? Matthew Bell, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), explains.

“A fatal flaw of 1970s-style industrial strategies was the dominant focus on existing industries and the companies within them.” 

These are the words of Greg Clark MP, secretary of state for BEIS, in his introduction to the government’s Green Paper on an Industrial Strategy for the 21st century. 

It is a timely reminder that, although nobody can predict the future, we do know that the economy of 2050 will look rather different to the economy of 1950. And the UK needs to prepare accordingly. 

Forward-planning – whether in years or decades – underpins much of our work at the CCC. In March, we documented the impressive growth of low-carbon manufacturing, goods and services right across the UK in a new report, and set out our view of the risks to and opportunities for UK infrastructure from a changing climate in a letter to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Last summer, we looked at climate risks to infrastructure in some depth. Making the right decisions about our infrastructure today is essential if we are to ensure we are ready for the economy of tomorrow.

The NIC, which provides the government with impartial, expert advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges, is rightly concerned about climate change. In fact, it has identified climate change as one of the four main drivers of future infrastructure need; a link which is likely to be explored in detail in the commission’s upcoming National Infrastructure Assessment. 

It’s an important balance to get right. All of us, our children and grandchildren, will have to live with the consequences of major infrastructure decisions taken over the next decade or so. If we fall short, we risk hampering new industries, future productivity and growth, and failing to protect vital services. 

Planning ahead is about ensuring our infrastructure is both low-carbon and resilient. It’s also about viewing infrastructure as an evolving, integrated system. This includes taking note of increased interdependencies between telecoms and power, telecoms and power with transport, homes with telecoms, power and water and many others.   

This systemic approach emphasises the importance of ensuring long-term resilience to a changing climate: if one part of the system fails, there is a risk of damaging knock-on effects for others. A systemic approach also hints at the underlying conditions required to ensure our infrastructure supports the emerging low-carbon economy. Infrastructure systems must be designed to allow better, real-time interaction between customers and companies. For example, by allowing consumers to control their energy and water use at home and work based on costs and needs at different times of the day, and supporting existing and new industries with reliable, smart infrastructure that improves its energy efficiency – amongst others. 

Building tomorrow’s infrastructure today will require new skills and training – another pillar of the Industrial Strategy. We will always need people who can build roads, telephone masts, water pipes and power lines – but the roads, masts, pipes and lines of the 2030s-50s will be quite different to those we have built in the past. They will need to incorporate rapid charging solutions for vehicles, be able to handle huge volumes of data, video and other technology-driven interactions, and be ready to manage increased feedback as power flows from large generators to our homes, and back the other way. 

We will also need people who can build the vital infrastructure to capture and store carbon underground (or use it in re-purposed materials such as cement), as well as a new generation of innovators who are tuned-in to our changing climate and sensitive to the resilience needs of our new infrastructure. A modern, interconnected world needs a level of reliability that has never been required before but also provides us with the tools to achieve that through, for example, real-time ‘demand response’. It’s easy to see why resilience is one of the most important factors in decisions about where to build low-carbon industries now and in the future.

 The UK has demonstrated that it has some of the tools to meet these challenges. Since 1990, the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by around 38% while GDP has risen by around 65%. The decisions we make about infrastructure today will undoubtedly influence whether we can continue to grow our economy and reduce our carbon footprint, whilst taking advantage of the many opportunities – for our jobs, exports and knowledge – of the global low-carbon transition that will come to define the 21st century.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The CCC’s ‘Energy Prices and Bills Report 2017’ can be accessed at:

W: www.theccc.org.uk/publication/energy-prices-and-bills-report-2017

 The CCC’s letter to NIC can be accessed at:

W: www.tinyurl.com/CCC-NIC-Letter

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