What’s the impact of climate change on environmental assessments?

The impact of climate change on environmental assessments is primarily related to flood risk. Rising sea levels and increased rainfall all increase flood risk (and associated water contamination) from the sea, sewers and rivers.

This in turn affects the way in which new developments are assessed for environmental consequences. The assessment will be crucial to how a project moves forward.

In February this year, the advice regarding climate change allowances to support the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) were revised.  

Climate change allowances for river flow and sea level vary, depending on the flood risk for different areas of the UK. Previously a 20% increase for climate change in river and sea levels were used.

What are developers’ legal obligations?

Legislation regarding climate change and environmental assessments comes under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. The Act was a response to major flooding in 2007 when 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded. The flooding of 2007 was largely caused by surface water run off that overloaded drainage systems but the new Act also took into account the increasing threats posed by climate change.

Responsibilities for developers

Legislation removed the automatic right for new developments and redevelopments to connect to sewers. Instead, developers are often obliged to make SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems) part of new building plans in order to minimise flood risk. SUDS mimic natural, non-urbanised draining systems by routeing run-off to a water course via piping.

The government’s (NPPF) sets out how planning can help to minimise vulnerability and provide resilience to the impacts of climate change. Guidance on the implementation of policy set out in the NPPF explains how flood risk should be considered at all stages of the planning and development process, in order to avoid inappropriate development and to reduce damage to property and loss of life.

Water quality and Brexit

The question of water quality, contamination and pollution is part and parcel of building infrastructure to reduce risk of flooding. This is currently regulated according to European Commission (EC) directives which set out standards for water quality and impose monitoring requirements.

The approaching implementation of the UK’s exit from the EU means that a certain amount of uncertainty hangs over future requirements for water quality. However, it is important to bear in mind that these requirements form part of the UK’s NPPF. Currently, developers must consider the possible health or ecological effects of pollutants.

Air quality and Brexit

One of the primary causes of climate change is believed to be via the increased production and release of CO2 and greenhouse gasses through human activity. Developers are not generally required to assess the levels of these gases when producing assessments to support planning applications, but a new EU directive requires climate change be looked at within Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). However, this directive is not required to become UK law until 2017 and with the UK’s exit from the EU imminent, there may be no obligation to do so. Whether the UK chooses to adhere to the existing EU guidance and introduce these requirements is as yet unknown.

Whatever the future political landscape and the detail of the legislation in time to come, it is clear that climate change will continue to have an impact on environmental assessments. Scientific research, together with the development of building and construction methods will also have a part to play.

It’s important, therefore, that developers are mindful of the importance of environmental assessments and the increasing role that they play in the application of global and national legislation and policy. Those developers who demonstrate innovation and responsibility in these areas are set to be the businesses that flourish in the future.

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