Chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd’s speech to the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum on Tuesday, 13th February 2018
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.
Because the theme of this conference is “natural capital in England and the role of a 25-year Environment Plan”, this speech will – naturally – focus on the long term future.
But, it is also important to think about the short term future.
So - don’t worry - I know it’s nearly lunchtime and I won’t go on too long.
The 25 Year Plan cuts across so many particular interests and areas of public life that is easy to pick apart specifics but not see the whole.
As an environmentalist and also as an investor, I welcome the 25 Year Plan because it officially acknowledges that natural capital is essential to the industrial strategy and our future prosperity.
That is a huge step forward.
As Chair of the Environment Agency, I also welcome the plan, because it charts a clear set of priorities and objectives that we will be instrumental in delivering.
But, when I say “we”, I don’t just mean the Environment Agency.
We need your help, your expertise, your networks, and even – dare I say it? – your criticism, to make sure that the details of the 25 Year Plan can be effectively drafted and realised.
Partnership is essential - so please see this speech as an invitation to engage with us and work together.
A running feature of the 25 year plan is water resilience.
Today, I mostly want to talk about climate change and England’s resilience to flooding.
The next 25 years will see changes we can’t imagine now.
How old will your children will be in 2043? How many changes will they go through between now and then?
Throughout that time, climate change will continue to shape the world.
We need to stay one step ahead to make sure that our infrastructure, economy and natural surroundings are resilient.
The 25 Year Plan says “We will take all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact. We will do this by… Making sure that all policies, programmes and investment decisions take into account the possible extent of climate change this century.”
How should we do that?
Even now, flooding is one of the biggest natural disasters we face in England. There are around 5.2 million homes at risk - roughly 1 in 6.
In July, the Met Office published a report saying there is a 1 in 3 chance of a new rainfall record somewhere in England and Wales every winter.
This affects absolutely everything.
By 2100, it is estimated the sea level will rise between 0.4 and 1 metre.
To put that into context: in January, a sea wall protecting the town of Portreath in Cornwall collapsed when Storm Eleanor coincided with a tidal surge that was only a few centimetres high.
The Environment Agency is at the heart of flood resilience in England. We deliver flood forecasting, warning systems, flood protection and resilience.
Most of our work on flood – though not all - is funded by the 6 year £2.6 billion flood programme.
The programme is a good thing.
Before, we only discovered the flood budget on an annual basis, which made planning infrastructure projects extremely difficult.
It has provided the financial stability to make longer-term plans and attract partnership funding.
In January, we celebrated a milestone for the programme as The Terminal Groyne project in Cleethorpes took us past 100,000 properties better protected.
This is a great achievement for my colleagues, the government and all of the businesses, councils and communities who have worked in partnership to get here.
We build climate change predictions into the design of flood defence schemes and we are constantly revisiting our modelling as we discover more.
The most famous of these schemes is the Thames Barrier which - along with the 350 kilometres of associated flood walls and embankments, smaller barriers, pumping stations and flood gates - protects London.
In planning for the future we produce The Thames Estuary 2100 plan, which is adaptable to changes in climate change predictions throughout the century.
Our most recent assessment is that the Thames Barrier could continue to protect the capital until the end of the century.
However, it may prove more cost-effective to build a new barrier further downstream by 2070.
And that is the other big consideration here.
Our preparations not only depend on the level of climate change we expect to see, but also on the life span of our investment decisions and the level of risk people in England are prepared to live with.
In 2004, the government commissioned a review of the long-term impact of climate change.
It concluded that: “Hard choices need to be taken – we must either invest more in sustainable approaches to flood and coastal management or learn to live with increased flooding.”
Today, I say that climate change means we no longer have that choice.
We need to do both.
Is flood prevention success best measured in terms of properties protected alone?
We are going to see more intense bouts of rainfall in the future. So, no matter how many defences we build, properties are still going to flood.
Should we, perhaps, also consider measuring flood resilience in terms of how long people are out of their homes, or how long it takes businesses to resume trade?
Any amount of time spent away from home against your will is extremely distressing.
The damage can impact people for years after the event - both financially and emotionally.
We are not the only ones dealing with this. There are still people living in their cars in Houston, Texas, after Storm Harvey last year.
Everybody needs to broaden their understanding of flood protection and look to invest more in property level resilience.
And, a great example of what this might look like can be seen at the flood resilient house at BRE’s innovation park in Hertfordshire, which has a range of adaptions such as flood resistant doors, windows and water resistant wallboard and insulation.
In 2019, we will prepare to update the national flood strategy and decide how to invest after 2021.
We believe part of the solution is a new long term settlement which will help us to continue, and embed, the benefits established with the current flood programme.
This would help us to attract more non-public sector investment – one of the 25 year plan’s aims for the updated strategy.
It would also help us to better partner with long-term large-scale national infrastructure projects that will take many years to complete.
Brexit has an impact on all of these considerations.
One legislative change that could help is the future of farm subsidies after we’ve left the Common Agricultural Policy.
The Secretary of State said to the Oxford Farming Conference in January: “We will also make additional money available for those who wish to collaborate to secure environmental improvements collectively at landscape scale.”
But, Government isn’t the only responsible actor in this and farmers aren’t the only ones who should consider the resilience of their property.
There is growing recognition of the role of the financial system.
I am a member of the Green Finance Taskforce: a cross departmental initiative working with industry to accelerate the growth of green finance.
There are huge opportunities for growth and development as we transition to a low carbon and more resilient economy - and there are already areas of progress.
For example: the City of London’s Green Finance Initiative to develop the world’s first green financial management standards.
But wide appreciation of climate risk in the city still lags behind the pace of change.
We need to see more accurate reporting on environmental performance, including exposure to climate risk in companies’ estates, supply chains and investments.
The city’s influence reaches all around the world.
So, international collaboration is essential to success in this as well as all other areas of environmental management.
Green Brexit does not mean environmental isolation.
Michael Gove said last year: “It is because environmental degradation is such a threat to future prosperity and security that I deeply regret President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change… International co-operation to deal with climate change is critical if we’re to safeguard our planet’s future and the world’s second biggest generator of carbon emissions cannot simply walk out of the room when the heat is on.”
We now also need to step up international co-operation on climate resilience as well as climate change mitigation.
Last year, I visited the Netherlands where parts of the country, including some of its most profitable financial hubs, are already 6 metres below sea level.
In the last 10 years, they have experienced 8 of their 10 largest recorded rainfall events.
I met Dutch flood experts who previously thought their most immediate risk would be rising sea levels - but now they think it will be heavy rain.
In England, we too have seen an extraordinary series of record rainfall events in the last ten years. From the summer floods of 2007 right up to the winter of 2015.
The Environment Agency still has a lot to improve on following these incidents, but we have also learnt a lot about response and resilience.
Dutch authorities visit us regularly to learn about this, because they know at some point they will inevitably have to be operationally ready for a flood, just as the Environment Agency is in England.
Another area we are learning about across borders is natural flood management.
At Hondsbossche, I walked along flood banks which - based on current predictions - would have to be raised another 2 metres to keep back the North Sea.
Like us, the Dutch realise you shouldn’t only try to manage water by building walls.
Instead, engineers moved 35 million cubic metres of sand to create a new system of dunes alongside the existing earth banks, which absorb the energy from storms and protect the existing defences.
In England, the government is currently investing £15 million in natural flood management to explore its effectiveness.
The dawning of more innovative natural flood management schemes is a perfect example of how the individual objectives of the 25 year plan join together to make a greater whole.
As well as the potential for natural flood management to deliver greater climate resilience, there could also be wider benefits including better wildlife habitats, recreational opportunities and improved water quality.
We need your help to design and deliver all of those things. How can you help us?
Experience shows us that the challenges we face cannot be solved by academic documents alone.
Collaboration between people – countries, governments, businesses, communities and NGOs - is essential.
The 25 Year Plan sets out the ambition and climate change creates the urgency.
So let’s work together and create a greener, resilient and more prosperous country.
Thank you very much.