Ep31: Emma Howard Boyd 'Climate Change? We'll be in Floods.'

“The Environment Agency is the voice of the environment, the voice of climate change… and nature's recovery”: Emma Howard Boyd on sustainable preparations for natural disasters


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the UK Environment Agency.

Michael spoke to Emma shortly after extreme weather conditions hit the UK in the early months of 2021. How the UK can prepare for increasingly likely wet winters was a focus of the conversation. Emma also spoke to Michael about rewilding, Boris Johnson’s Ten Point Plan, and the interest of finance in tackling climate change.


Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity. 


Michael Liebreich: Emma, welcome to Cleaning Up. You've had quite a busy couple of weeks with the floods. What is the best way to think long-term to protect against flooding?


Emma Howard Boyd: It's been an extraordinary start to the year. Since joining the board of the Environment Agency and ultimately chairing it, a lot of my attention has moved to the adaptation and resilience agenda. It has become clear that if we're investing in renewables, that investment could become stranded if we're not preparing for the future. The investment could literally wash away in a flood or melt in a heatwave.

We need to remain one step ahead of the climate change that we're now experiencing. That's why the Environment Agency published a strategy up to 2100. That strategy set out very clear things that we need to do over the next five and ten years so that we're not delaying decisions to the end of the century. Ultimately, communities don't want to live behind higher and higher walls. So, there is a range of different things. We need to make sure that any individual living at flood risk can understand the steps that can make a difference between not only what happens to their house, but ultimately to their life as well.

On the flip side, we need to work on holding back water higher up the catchment area through land management so that we've got that water supply ready if we go through a prolonged dry period.


ML: How much is the UK spending on infrastructure versus resilience? And how does this compare internationally?


EHB: There were some of the announcements made at the Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021, including one from Kristalina Georgieva, that suggested spending at least 50/50 of international climate finance on the adaptation and resilience agenda. I think you need to look at it on an individual project basis because sometimes it will need specific investment in adaptation and resilience. At other times, it will be about combining the two.

Regarding the infrastructure program in the UK, the Infrastructure Projects Authority put out a report last summer that looks at current annual infrastructure spend, and from memory, it was about £37bn roughly split 50/50 between the public sector and the private sector. But arguably all that £37bn needs to be made ready for net-zero. But it also needs to be ready for the climate shocks we know are coming. From the analysis that we've done at the Environment Agency, we know that for every home that is flooded, 16 other individuals are affected by the infrastructure services that they use.

We saw it was with Storm  Christoph, you saw it last year with the flooding. It's about the rail, the road, sewage, and water infrastructure. You need to move into social infrastructure. You need to make sure schools and hospitals are ready for climate shocks. I know that a huge amount of focus has been given to that by Baroness Brown, the chair of the Adaptation Committee of the Climate Change Committee. So we need to make sure that all of this is meeting the government's net-zero commitment.


ML: If you're building a wind farm or solar project, or public transport, or whatever infrastructure it is, you need to think about the purpose of the project. It's not today's weather patterns, but it's the future climate, future weather patterns in the sense of climate change. I can see that investors will say, “well, I don't want to build something and have it washed away.” But what about existing infrastructure -schools or infrastructure of any sort that now needs money? How do you finance that? It's very different from financing a new project. Where does the money come from?


EHB: It’s a complex area depending on where you are in the world. We have a small team at the Environment Agency that is focusing on financial mechanisms that will work, potentially, alongside some policy developments as well. Ultimately, if you're not preparing communities for these risks, you end up with far larger sums of money needing to be spent.  

This needs to go beyond the departments of the environment. It needs to be a fundamental part of any finance ministry’s thinking. Through my work on the Global Commission on Adaptation, I have been incredibly humbled by some of the finance ministers, particularly of small island states, such as Fiji. That is where we need to make sure that it is understood what the climate threat is bringing to us. With the right kind of investment, we can hopefully push that away and protect our communities from the impacts that we're already seeing.


ML: At the Environment Agency you also deal with some others which are at the heart of contemporary debates. For example, biodiversity, and the rewilding of areas. You've also talked about natural solutions to flooding, and maybe those are connected? Where are those discussions within your top circle and the various political figures that you interact with?


EHB: There is a huge emphasis now on the natural environment and natural recovery. It's the other bit of this incredible puzzle that we are now grappling with in terms of the planet and our place on the planet from a longevity perspective.

There is a very strong push for the natural environment in the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. When we were visiting Manchester, a week or so ago, it was one of the responses to flooding that he was interested in. The role of planting trees, but land management also being a big part of the debate. I see it coming through as one of the priorities articulated by the COP26 team, alongside net zero and the race to resilience, there is a very strong push for nature and natural recovery.


ML:  We have both been appointed as advisors to the Board of Trade. Can you talk me through what you hope to bring to the UK's new resurgent sort of trade policy? It’s the first time we've got an independent policy in nearly 50 years, what's your perspective?


EHB: It's the voice of the environment, the voice of climate change, or being prepared for climate change and nature's recovery. Given that I chair the Environment Agency, given all the other things I've been involved with in recent years associated with the climate change adaptation and resilience agenda, I see that as something that is very much bringing in the 25-year environment plan, which is a DEFRA project.

I'm really pleased that our second report from the Board of Trade is going to focus on green trade, and will be published ahead of the G7 discussions where I think we can confidently say that a large part of the focus for those discussions will be on a green and resilient recovery.