Insight: Digital infrastructure & the impacts of climate change

Climate change adaptation is about building in resilience to things like flooding, storms and sustained high temperatures.

In a policy context, it means continuing to enjoy our quality of life by ensuring the systems on which we rely still function adequately – systems such as electricity, water, sewerage, transport and telecoms. These systems are heavily interdependent; our water supply cannot work without electricity, air traffic control cannot work without digital communications.

Adaptation planning previously focused on improving resilience of individual services; the UK Government can require certain infrastructure sectors to report on their climate change readiness. more recently, attention has shifted to interdependencies, firstly to the dependence of most sectors on energy and now to the dependence on ICT.

Government recognised it is dealing with a complicated system of systems; DEFRA invited the ICT sector to report on its readiness for climate change with Ofcom invited to cover communications. techUK, an industry associated in the ICT sector, drew together the submission for digital infrastructure, i.e. fixed and mobile access networks, core networks and data centres. It described the climate change risks and the possible impacts, identified sources of information on resilience planning, and noted the barriers to the development of adaptive capacity. mindful that much of the fixed line infrastructure is delivered by one provider with its own well-developed corporate risk
plan, the submission focussed on the UK data centre estate.

UKCP09 (UK Climate Projections) provides the primary information source on scenarios for rainfall, temperature and humidity although it is not clear how widely these are used by operators.The Environment Agency’s “Flood map for planning” provides localised flood risk information and is extensively used.The extent to which the sector is aware of other Environment Agency data, such as surface water modelling, is variable.

Digital infrastructure is relatively resilient to climate change; its asset life is relatively short so more resilient assets can be deployed as part of the replacement cycle, and there is more built-in redundancy in ICT infrastructures. On the other hand, the sector is highly dependent on energy and there are interdependencies within the digital infrastructures sector that can be complex to analyse. Physical impacts to climate change
threats include flooding of buildings and ducts, silt and salt damage, scour of cabling and foundations, problems of access for staff, disruption to logistics, cable heave from uprooted trees, lightning damage, wind damage, higher costs of cooling, and stress
on components.

Data centres compete on the basis of resilience; the more important the data, the more resilient the facility.This is usually achieved through “redundancy”, which carries both capital and operational costs. Data centre availability classes are described under EN 50600 and there are other generic risk standards such as ISO 31000. Scenario
planning for emergencies is common.

Making the business case for investing in something that may not be needed can be a barrier and the dependence on other sectors, especially energy but also transport and
physical “pinch points” like bridges that carry multiple utilities,make it particularly complex to analyse and justify. External barriers include a policy focus on protecting physical assets rather than on business or service continuity.Also,regulatory policy driving price competition can lead to unintended consequences on resilience.

The UK’s digital infrastructure has experienced localised interruptions in service. It has implemented changes following flooding in york and Leeds in 2015 and has learned from Japan where prior planning ensured that data centres there escaped serious damage  rom the 2011 tsunami.

techUK’s submission to Government recommended:
• A more standardised approach to the climate change projections so that all sectors are using the same dataset.
• A policy approach that accommodates service delivery rather than just asset protection and a more robust approach to dealing with inappropriate flood plain developments.
• A more proactive process for identifying single points of failure in physical infrastructure following incidents such as the road bridge failures at Tadcaster and Cockermouth.
• Hinted at some regulatory aspects might be revisited to ensure that they do not result in unintended consequences.

The important thing is that operators are aware that climate change risks exist, that they have to be actively managed as part of the risk portfolio and that, just like risks from
terrorism, they are constantly changing.

This is a summary of a full article which appeared in The Journal, Volume 11, Part 2 (free for members).

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