Climate Chaos: “it’s not part of the project brief”

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, addresses the CBI construction roundtable

Emma Howard Boyd

Before we begin, I want to say that I think we may already agree.

Earlier this month, your new director-general Tony Danker, said:

“At current estimates from the Climate Change Committee, UK low carbon investment each year will need to increase from around £10 billion in 2020 to around £50bn by 2030. But isn’t that a route to power our recovery? Creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs and helping us succeed in high-value industries of the future.”

In a nutshell, that is what my comments are all about today.

I will give you the Environment Agency’s perspective, but I am particularly interested in the discussion afterwards.

I like to think of “construction” in four different pots:

• Housing
• Buildings
• Infrastructure Systems
• Mega Projects (like HS2 and Crossrail)

Each of these with their own fees and procurement, design process and structure.

To make significant changes of the sort we need, the challenges of these sectors need to be addressed using the very best of systems thinking.

In recognition that I’m not an expert on the detail, my colleague Ken Allison is here to help in the discussion.

But, I do know that we are not keeping pace with the acceleration of climate change.

I hope we can discover what the barriers are to our shared objectives, and you can tell me what we might say to Government about how to collectively overcome them.

Hopefully, by the end, we will be able to confirm that we are all in agreement, even if we still have more questions than answers.

In January, I visited Didsbury with the Prime Minister where the vast flood basin (equivalent to more than 310 Olympic size swimming pools) was centimetres away from overtopping and flooding 3,000 properties.

Storm Cristoph brought flooding across the UK on the 19th and 20th January 2021.

Early estimates suggest that economic damages in England were £55 million.

But, without flood defences, the economic damages could have been about 70 times higher at around £3.9 billion.

For the Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire Area specifically, we have estimated that economic losses to be in the region of £27 - 49 million, and avoided economic losses are in the region of £1.3 to 2.5 billion (about 50 times higher).

This compares to the £170 million that has been spent on upgrading and improving defences in the area since 2010, along with around £5 million per year in maintenance.

These figures are encouraging, but you may have seen comments from the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive widely reported in the media yesterday that:

“Over the last few years the reasonable worst case for several of the flood incidents the EA has responded to has actually happened, and it’s getting larger”.

Given the time of year COP26 is taking place, it is worth acknowledging that flooding in the UK could provide a backdrop - I remember the briefing I received mid-way through the Paris COP.

This year, we have all had a crash course in how the race between new variants of disease and vaccinations work.

As climate change mutates over the coming years, we must be one step ahead.

Last summer, we released the nation’s Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy to 2100.

Every flooded home is a personal tragedy, but we can’t win a war against water by building infinitely high flood defences.

Our response requires a race to net zero (referred to in your briefing pack) a race to greater resilience to climate shocks, and a race to trillions of dollars.

The Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution gets the UK off the starting blocks.

It calls for over £30 billion of private capital to support the Government’s investment by creating investable markets.

The Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment was launched in 2019.

This coalition was created to ensure that, by 2025, physical climate risks are systematically integrated into all investment decisions (particularly for infrastructure).

It brings together private companies, governments and inter-governmental bodies, including many of the world’s leading financial businesses and asset managers that collectively manage more than $11 trillion in assets.

BUT - Do we have the tools to decarbonise and prepare for worsening floods and heatwaves already, or are we reliant – as Bill Gates would seem to suggest – on new technologies not yet invented?

Greta Thunberg said we need “cathedral thinking” which means we begin to build the foundations without knowing exactly what the ceiling will look like.

This year, when the Government hosts the G7 and the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, UK PLC has a golden opportunity to demonstrate such leadership.

Last week, the Environmental Audit Committee published a report calling for climate and nature investment to be prioritised in the economic recovery.

The committee said infrastructure created now will be used for decades and must be considered against the net zero target and biodiversity and climate impacts.

They called for nature recovery to be integral to infrastructure plans and also an embodied carbon target for new homes.

All organisations in the private sector need revisit their strategic objectives through the lens of climate change.

Businesses need to understand their carbon emissions and be transparent about what they are doing to reduce them.

The Institution of Civil Engineers survey “What makes good design?” identified that the most limiting factors to progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate adaptation were that “it’s not part of the project brief”.

I would like to hear your views on this.

At the Environment Agency, we are putting them in the project brief.

We are using our activities and supply chain to find new ways to reach net zero.

We have achieved a 47 percent reduction in our own direct emissions in the last 14 years, and are pushing ahead with our own 2030 net zero goal.

Construction is the biggest part of our footprint at 147,000 tonnes, by 2030 we aim to have reduced emissions to 80,850 tonnes.

We will ensure our suppliers are leaders in their sector on net zero and partner with the wider construction sector to share learning and drive necessary markets (for instance, in low carbon concrete for flood defences).

We will address the effect of our remaining emissions through offsetting.

Investors are increasingly calling for climate action and will in time encourage client organisations to be more demanding.

But, we can’t afford to wait for that.

The most successful companies will get ahead of that trend and be prepared to demonstrate case studies to raise the bar across industry.

Use of the UN Sustainable Development Goals could help.

The recently completed Boston Barrier flood scheme is providing better long term protection to the local community in Lincolnshire from East Coast storm surges.

It was also the first major construction project undertaken by the Environment Agency where we mapped work against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The learning from this will help us steer infrastructure projects so they are producing multiple societal and economic benefits that go far beyond their stated purpose.

To conclude:

In its scale and complexity, the climate emergency is more difficult to manage than coronavirus. We must adapt and get to net zero quickly.

This demands massive change across industry.

The Environment Agency and our partners are working with behavioural psychologists to help us overcome the natural human barriers that get in the way.

Because, it will expose vulnerabilities and requires courage.

And, it will require collaboration and trust on a scale we haven’t seen.

But, as the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson said:

“I don’t think as a human race that we can be so stupid that we can’t face an existential threat together and find a common humanity and solidarity to respond to it. Because we do have the capacity and the means to do it – if we have the political will.”

So, here are three questions for you:

· How do you as CBI members feel about this challenge?

· How can we secure this trust and collaboration across whole supply chains and industries?

· And, can we do it quickly enough making the most of this year?

Thank you very much.

Environment Agency
Emma Howard Boyd