X Close

UCL Energy Institute Blog


Blogs by staff & students of the UCL Energy Institute


Archive for the 'Climate and Water' Category

Video: Climate Change and Resource Use

By Seyed Mohammad Mehdi Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, on 7 March 2014

Climate Week video







At first glance, climate change is all about energy consumption and associated carbon emissions. Other resources than energy greatly matter too however. The use of natural resources leads to carbon emissions and many mitigation options like renewables depend on scarce resources like critical metals. In this video, Professor Paul Ekins, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources, and Professor Raimund Bleischwitz, BHP Billiton Chair in Sustainable Global Resources, explain the relation between different resources and global warming. Also, PhD researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources provide insight in the role of energy, water, land and fossil fuels in the changing climate.

Watch the video by Stijn Van Ewijk and Seyed Medhi Mohaghegh, UCL ISR PhD students

Climate Change and Water – A Link to Engender Action?

By ucftpdr, on 5 March 2014

Blog by Paul Drummond, UCL ISR Researcher

As is well known, the climate system and hydrological cycle are inextricably linked. A warmer atmosphere melts water stored as ice at high latitudes and altitudes leading to sea level rise, which in turn allows more of the sun’s radiation to be absorbed, further accelerating warming. A warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture, increasing the frequency of heavy rainfall events in areas of previously moderate conditions, whilst shifting climatic zones may either reduce the intensity and timing (or even remove) heavy rainfall in areas that rely upon it. Water vapour itself, of course, is the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

Might it be this relationship that eventually spurs the world into action to reduce emissions to prevent the worst effects of a changing climate?

It certainly seems possible. The recent drought in California and flooding in the south of England have both bumped climate change to the top of the political agenda in the USA and UK once more. The current Californian drought has so far lasted for nearly three years, with 2013 the driest year since records began. Reservoir levels are dangerously low, with fires running rampant across the parched landscape. The large agricultural economy has been hit extremely hard. The situation in the south and particularly south-west of the UK couldn’t be more stark. England and Wales saw the most winter rainfall since 1766, bursting river banks and overcoming defences to flood over 6,500 homes and around 50,000 hectares of farmland.

These opposing sides of the same coin directly impact the lives and livelihoods of people living and working in these areas. Naturally, they seek reasons for why this is happening to them, who is at fault, and assurances that all efforts will be taken to make sure that it does not happen again.

At least some of blame has been focussed on government policy. In the UK, a lack of dredging of rivers and inadequate historic investment in flood defences has been blamed, along with long-term trends of removing upland vegetation for pasture and expanding settlements onto floodplains (or even reclaimed land in the case of the Somerset Levels). Of course, these aspects all combine to a greater or lesser extent to produce the damage experienced. But such factors may only control what happens to precipitation once it has occurred, and not the volume that must be dealt with.

This is where climate change enters the present discourse. Of course, an explicit link between these specific extreme events and climate change cannot be drawn, however a changing climate is likely to increase the frequency by which these events occur, and their intensity when they do. Despite this, both President Obama and David Cameron have voiced their opinions that climate change very much had a role to play in recent events (or in Cameron’s words, ‘very much suspects’). Such rhetoric, particularly in the UK from a government who it was felt were abandoning their ‘green’ credentials over time, reflects the extent to which climate change, and whether and how we should tackle it, has re-entered the public debate.

Of course, the USA and UK are not the only states in which water issues can be prevalent. In many countries, the absence or abundance of water is of paramount importance – a concern this is only likely to increase over time. However, it appears that developing nations are over-represented among this number. For example, small island states and low-lying countries such as Bangladesh are likely to be the first victims of a rising sea level, whilst the nations of the North Africa are likely to be among the first to feel extended periods of chronic water shortages, in parallel to expected rapid increases in population.

Unfortunately, these are not the nations that hold the key to meaningful global climate action, and they broadly do not have the financial resources to adapt to their new climate regimes if such action is not taken. It is the developed nations, along with the BRICS, which are pivotal. It is only when these countries decide that mitigation action is indeed necessary that significant steps will be taken, and this is unlikely to happen until climate change ceases to be an abstract concept in the mind of the general populous, but a real and present issue – with the most likely manifestation of this to be when previously extreme flood and drought events become increasingly normalised.



Climate Change and Water: Stores have a response in store

By zcfad21, on 5 March 2014

Blog by Simon Damkjaer, UCL ISR PhD student

Substantial increases in the combustion of fossil fuels over the 20th Century have led to a shifting climate, whose impacts on global water resources are best experienced through changes in the global hydrological cycle.  As part of a series of posts related to the 2013 UCL Energy and UCL ISR Climate Week, this blog post provides an overview of the most direct impacts of climate change on water resources and highlights my Doctoral Research on the importance of hydrological stores under a changing climate.












Ice sheets and glacier retreats
Climate change has been popularly coined “Global Warming”, and as the name itself suggests, means rising temperatures.  The first way, in which rising temperatures impact global water resources is through the transfer of freshwater from a state of solid snow and ice into water as a fluid state.  The ice-sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been melting at alarming rates over the past decades [1], which has led to an increase in the mean rate of sea-level rise of 3.3 mm/year relative to a 20th Century average of 1.7 mm/year [2].  The effects of rising sea levels, simply put, will exacerbate the risk of storm surges at coastal areas.

Furthermore, snowfall over the polar ice-sheets is predicted to be reduced.  This, in combination with melting ice-sheets, will decrease the ice-sheets’ albedo effect – that is the amount of surface that deflects incoming solar irradiation.  A reduction in albedo effect risks triggering so-called feedback mechanisms, a system of circular loops, in which the warming of the global surface is enhanced, as less incoming heat is reflected due to a reduction in albedo which is caused by ice-sheet retreat due to rising temperatures and so forth.

Although alpine glaciers are currently melting at rates three times lower than that of ice-sheets, their impacts are still felt through effects on river flow, whose influence range from moderate in mid-latitude basins, to major influence in very dry basins.  The main issue related to an increase in glacier melt rate is that it causes a mismatch and unpredictability in the timing of dry period river flows, which has implications for access to water for agricultural purposes.

Precipitation, Evaporation and Transpiration alterations
The second way in which the global water cycle is affected by a shifting climate is experienced by the ability of hotter air to hold more water, which in return affects precipitation and evaporation rates.  The effects of increasing precipitation rates are felt at two extremes.  At the one end, rainfall events will be more extreme, short-term and variable, which will lead to increased run-off and thus higher flood risks.  At the other end, the intervals between these short-lived and heavy rainfall events, will get longer, which increases drought risks.
As temperatures rise, more water evaporates back into the air, which means less water availability for crops – “less crop per drop”.  Additionally, from a biological point of view, higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere, cause terrestrial plants to transpire less, thus lowering the amount of water they use – “less drop per crop”.    It, therefore, becomes evident that the impacts of climatic changes will have severe implications for food security in the future.

Uncertainty: a key challenge
The biggest challenge to the water resources community in modelling the impacts of a shifting climate on water resources is the extreme uncertainty associated with the exercise.  Apart, from the general well-known processes, how these shifts will affect water’s wider environmental interconnectedness still remains unclear.  In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have taken a long time to properly include the effects of climate change on water resources into their annual reports, which is evidenced by only dedicating ten pages in their 4th Annual Report.  The reason for this has not been to downplay the importance of water, whose scarcity indeed was declared the second biggest global risk at the 2013 World Economic Forum, but simply because predicting the effects of climate change on water resources, continues to prove difficult, particularly on groundwater, where data is scarce.

The importance of stores
The effects of climate change on the global hydrological cycle may appear to only lead to situations of disadvantages.  However, studies from East Africa [3], which my Doctoral Research is grounded in, suggests that climatic effects in this part of the world, will cause an intensification in rainfall, which benefits groundwater recharge.  As research in the domain increases, so does the realisation that our understanding of groundwater resources remain limited.
Groundwater stores will become increasingly important in the future, as they possess a slower response-time to climatic shifts than that of surface water.  These resources, therefore, should be considered a key adaptation strategy to a shifting climate.  However, a history of legislative neglect of the resources, means that notions and understanding of sustainable management and utilisation of groundwater stores remain in their infancy.  Thus, it remains to be seen what the water the resources community has in store for the future.

[1] Rignot et al. (2011), Geophys. Res. Lett., vol. 38, L05503

[2] Nicholls and Casenave (2010), Science, vol. 328, 151 7-1520.

[3] Taylor et al. (2012) Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2, doi: 10.1038/nclimate1731

Climate + Water: Living with Flooding

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 5 March 2014

Blog by Sofie Pelsmakers, PhD student at UCL-Energy
Join the conversation and follow Sofie on Twitter

In England, as many as 5.2 million dwellings may be at risk of some kind of flooding; that is 1 in 6 dwellings (Vardoulakis, 2012).

The UK is particularly vulnerable to flooding: as an island it is surrounded by a large body of water and is vulnerable to rising sea-levels and exposed to extreme weather and rainfall events.

In the UK, flooding can be from (see diagram below):

  1. Sea and rivers at high tide (tidal flooding)
  2. Rivers swollen from excessive rainfall or ice melting (fluvial flooding)
  3. Rainwater or snow melting (pluvial flooding) causing localised ‘flash-floods’
  4. Sewer flooding
  5. Other causes such as failing infrastructure or rising ground water.

Fig 1







Fig.1  Different causes of flooding and flood risk zones – copyright (Pelsmakers, 2012)

Flood risk is expressed as the likelihood that a flood will occur in a given year. There are four flood zones, ranging from zone 1, the lowest risk, to zone 3b, the highest, as indicated in the diagram above (Fig. 1). Zone 1 is at risk of flood less than once every 1000 years and all development is suitable, while in zone 3a, no ground floor dwellings should be built; and flood zone 3b, which has a flood risk of more than once every 20 years,  is effectively a floodplain, so building here should be avoided as this land is used and needed for the storage of excess water when floods do occur, simply to avoid flooding elsewhere.

The factors contributing to increased flood risk are:

  • pressure to build on new land, which decreases surfaces where water can be absorbed by the soil, but instead runs-off from hard surfaces to streets and sewers, which in the event of extreme rainfall may become overwhelmed, creating flash floods locally or contributing to already swollen rivers
  • increased run-off from hard surfaces as described above
  • increased intense rainfall events due to climate change, particularly on already saturated soils (usually in winter) and also after periods of extensive drought (rainfall runs over the dry soil as it cannot absorb the rainfall quickly enough)
  • Rising sea-levels caused by a warming world, which means an increased risk of coastal defenses being breached during storm surges

Impact of recent floods

This winter (2013/14) – while not over yet – is already one of the most exceptionally wet in the past 248 years (METOFFICE/CEH, Feb 2014) while in the summer of 2007, more than three times as much rain as normal caused exceptional summer flooding of 55,000 properties and significant damage to infrastructure (Vardoulakis, 2012). Unlike the 2007 summer, during this winter the majority of flooded properties have been those located in floodplains, which exist to act as water storage; and properties in less-dense rural areas .

While fewer people and properties have been affected than in 2007, flooding is not only disruptive at an operational level, causing damage and problems to property and infrastructure (water and electricity supply damage and failure), but has significant financial implications and leads to economic losses. The economic cost of infrastructure damage alone in the 2007 floods was estimated at £3.2 billion (Vardoulakis, 2012), while £130 million has already been allocated for emergency repairs and helping those affected during this winter’s floods (CCC, 2014b).

And of course it also affects – directly and indirectly – public health: while infectious disease from flooding in the UK is limited, health risks from flooding include hypothermia, accidents and injury, significant stress and mental health impacts from the exposure to dirty, sewage and debris contaminated water and loss of property and having no access to clean water, electricity and heating (Vardoulakis, 2012). Water as shallow as 15cm deep can be threatening to those at risk, particularly the elderly or young, and in some cases even leads to disease and death, with morality rates highest in flash floods (Vardoulakis, 2012).

In addition, risk of fungal growth after floods may be increased. Fungal growth affects occupant health (H. Altamirano-Medina, 2009) but this risk reduces with faster drying of a building after flooding (Taylor et al., 2012). Taylor et al. (2012) modelled flooding of properties and reported that drying out times of constructions was accelerated when properties were heated and naturally ventilated (i.e. with windows open). Evenso, drying out still takes ~ 1-3 months for solid wall constructions and much longer where the wall is of newer cavity construction (which is much of post-1930 construction in the UK) and where they are insulated with mineral wool (Taylor et al., 2012).

Heating a building with windows open is likely to be expensive and of course will have a significant environmental impact from the high space-heat demand required for the drying out of the structure. In addition, it is unknown how long properties with cavity walls and floor voids from suspended floor constructions and present in much of the UK’s pre-1919 building stock, take to dry out after flood events. Such constructions may be wet for much longer, even if the surfaces may appear dry. Yet fungal spores can be transferred from such voids and cavities to internal spaces (Airaksinen et al., 2004).

Flooding and a changing climate

There is no definitive answer whether these exceptional rainfall events were caused by climate change, due to the variable nature of the UK weather and climate, (METOFFICE/CEH, Feb 2014) but recent events provide a glimpse of what the future holds (CCC, 2014a, Vardoulakis, 2012).

This is because there is consensus that future predicted changes in climate are likely to increase the risk of flooding(CCC, 2014a, IPCC, 2013, Vardoulakis, 2012, ABI, 2009), as global warming will:

  • continue to alter the intensity, duration and distribution of rainfall, resulting in more urban and flashflooding;
  • increase extreme coastal high water levels in the future as a result from rising sea-levels.

Particularly at risk of exceptional floods are South Wales, Northwest Scotland, East Anglia, the Thames Estuary, Yorkshire and Humberside regions (Vardoulakis, 2012).

Yet there has been a reduction in staffing and investment in The UK’s flood-risk management (CCC, 2014b) in addition to an increase in building on flood risk areas in England: 12,000 to 16,000 new houses every year in England are built in flood-risk zones, though they may have been built more resilient to flooding (Vardoulakis, 2012).

Furthermore, this increased risk is acknowledged by the insurance industry and while risks are increasing, flood-defence cutbacks threaten to make home insurance unaffordable for many (ABI, 2009, ABI, 2010, Vardoulakis, 2012). For example, it is usually impossible to insure dwellings located in Flood risk zone 3.

“[…] planning for those climate-related changes and, where possible, adapting to their likely effects, is critical.” (Vardoulakis, 2012) So how can we prepare? Historically we have been defending our urban areas from water, but will this still work? After all, defending one area and increasing and/or improving flood barriers and defences may simply move the problem elsewhere, such as lower down in the valley or along the river. We probably need to start thinking about our land differently: can we work with water rather than against it? How do we reduce people living in flood risk areas  rather than increase this as more land may become at risk of flooding? And how do we protect people and property already present in flood-prone areas?

Living with Water

As a result of present and increased risk, we need to ‘flood-proof’ our buildings, villages and cities. The good news is that while the predicted conditions will be new to the UK, they are already a fact of life for much of the world and building precedents in the Netherlands, which has more than 50% of its landmass below sea-level, could teach us how to adapt our cities and how to work with water, rather than against it.

We need to do this with a combination of improving water storage at a macro-scale and managing water run-off at higher land before it flows into rivers and valleys and into our urban areas. Additionally, we need to:

  1. undertake flood risk assessments and build less, not more, in areas at risk of flooding from sea and rivers. This means not building in flood risk Zone 3; and instead managing this land to store water more naturally.
  2. allow a minimum of 5% space on urban land for water storage and the provision of efficient water flow channels
  3. Increase green spaces, permeable surfaces and urban reservoirs to collect rainwater. This can reduce localised flash flood risk and can provide recreational areas and support local wildlife.
  4. design flood resilient buildings: adapt existing building and build new buildings differently to protect and minimise damage to property (and life) and to allow easier repair and drying out in the event of floods. For example we can build new properties on stilts, or floating buildings as they do in the Netherlands.  In the UK we tend to built ‘sacrificial ground floors’ with dwellings above a ground floor car park, which can store water in the event of floods without damage to the properties at high level. Additionally, most existing structures can be ‘wet-proofed’, which means they are designed with possible future flooding in mind and result in only minimal damage to the property should this happen. This can be achieved through the use of water-resistant materials for floors, walls and fixtures, and the siting of electrical controls, cables and appliances above 1 meter from the ground. Fig.2. illustrates some of these options.

Fig 2


Figure 2. Flood mitigation: building typologies that work with water. Copyright (Pelsmakers, 2012).

Whatever the future holds, we cannot afford to be complacent – especially as the measures above, and many more, can and should be easily incorporated into current design, policy and planning procedures.

Neglecting to future-proof our buildings will only result in a country ill-adapted to the future needs of our society within a changing local and global environment. Buildings will fail to function effectively under extreme weather conditions leading to increased, wasteful energy use, and exacerbating the effects of global warming. At worst, the inability of our built environment to cater to the demands of its inhabitants might simply result in a stock of obsolete, unhealthy buildings unfit for purpose, while also increasing the necessity for costly and carbon-intensive interventions in years to come.

To safeguard our built-environment from extensive damage we need to start designing for these changes right now. With sufficient foresight and planning, we can provide buildings which support climate change mitigation efforts and, when needed in the future, also support the on-going climate change adaptation of our cities for years to come.


The above is based on The Environmental Design Pocketbook (2012), Pelsmakers, S., Riba Publishing and Pelsmakers, S. 2013. Future-proofing London. In: Bell, S and Paskins, J. (eds.) Imagining the Future City: London 2062. Pp. 73-83. London: Ubiquity Press, which can be downloaded for free from DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/bag.k


ABI. 2009. Rising global temperatures will put the heat on insurance as flood costs rise [Online]. Available: https://http://www.abi.org.uk/News/News-releases/2009/11/Rising-global-temperatures-will-put-the-heat-on-insurance-as-flood-costs-rise–new-research-from-the-ABI [Accessed Feb 27th 2014].

ABI. 2010. Climate Adaptation – Guidance on Insurance Issues

for New Developments

 [Online]. Available: https://http://www.abi.org.uk/~/media/Files/Documents/Publications/Public/Migrated/Flooding/Climate adaption guidance on insurance issues for new developments.ashx [Accessed Feb 27th 2014].

AIRAKSINEN, M., PASANEN, P., KURNITSKI, J. & SEPPANEN, O. 2004. Microbial contamination of indoor air due to leakages from crawl space: a field study. Indoor Air, 14, 55-64.

CCC. 2014a. Latest post: Climate change and the UK floods [Online]. CCC. Available: http://www.theccc.org.uk/ccc-blog/ [Accessed Feb 27th 2014].

CCC. 2014b. More money for flood defence (repairs) [Online]. CCC. Available: http://www.theccc.org.uk/blog/more-money-for-flood-defence-repairs/ [Accessed Feb 27th 2014].

H. ALTAMIRANO-MEDINA, M. D., I. RIDLEY, D. MUMOVIC AND T. ORESZCZYN 2009. Guidelines to Avoid Mould Growth in Buildings. ADVANCES IN BUILDING ENERGY RESEARCH 3, 221-236.

IPCC 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis – WORKING GROUP I CONTRIBUTION TO THE



METOFFICE/CEH Feb 2014. The Recent Storms and Floods in the UK. Devon: METOFFICE.

PELSMAKERS, S. 2012. The Environmental Design Pocketbook, London, RIBA Publishing.

TAYLOR, J., BIDDULPH, P., DAVIES, M., RIDLEY, I., MAVROGIANNI, A., OIKONOMOU, E. & LAI, K. M. 2012. Using building simulation to model the drying of flooded building archetypes. Journal of Building Performance Simulation, 1-22.

VARDOULAKIS, S., HEAVISIDE, C. 2012. Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK 2012 – Current evidence, recommendations and research gaps. In: HPA (ed.). Didcot: HPA.



Climate Crisis: Emergency Actions to Protect Human Health

By Ellie Forward, on 3 March 2014

Blog by Nick Watts, Head of Project, UCL-Lancet Commission
Join the conversation: Follow Nick on Twitter

“Above all, be visionary – this Commission is designing integrated solutions to what has been described as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. These were the parting words of Richard Horton – the editor of The Lancet – to the Commissioners at a recent London meeting.

LancetThe 2014 UCL-Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health is an ambitious initiative bringing together senior international climate scientists, economists, energy experts, and health professionals to present mitigation and adaptation policies necessary to protect human health from climate change, and promote sustainable development. The Commission is truly interdisciplinary and international, consisting a tripartite collaboration between University College London, Tsinghua University, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Within UCL, the Commission is working across the Institute of Global Health, the Energy Institute, the Institute for Sustainable Resources, the Geography Department, and the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy. Presenting its work in February 2015, the commission will ultimately aim to be policy-relevant, taking an academic ‘honest broker’ approach where experts in areas relating to climate change use their knowledge to integrate scientific knowledge more cohesively with policy.

Published in the Lancet – arguably the most influential medical journal in the world – the Commission understands climate change as a ‘health emergency’. Its work is divided in to five working groups, each tackling a particular part of the policy response to this crisis, and tasked with producing a chapter for the final report. Over the next week, a post from each of the working groups should give you a better idea of what they’ve got planned. But in the meantime, here’s a brief summary of what they’re looking at:

1)     WG1 will set the stage by laying out the latest evidence in climate science and the impacts these global environmental changes are having on human wellbeing. The group will attempt to employ innovative methods to demonstrate how global patterns of vulnerability shift with environmental and demographic changes;

2)     In light of the scientific update above, section 2 will examine the most effective solutions to improve resilience in the most vulnerable communities. One area of particular interest being explored is with regards to identifying the limits to adaptation;

3)     Experts in energy and climate change mitigation will explore the emergency technical solutions available, prioritising them according to their cost-effectiveness, time to implementation, and feasibility. In particular, Commissioners in WG3 will explore the ‘epidemiology of energy policy’, looking at what happens when large-scale policy changes are implemented in practice.

4)     The fourth component of the report will discuss a broad range of alternatives to financing the defined technical solutions. They’re looking at a broad range of responses, including international trade, taxation (regressive and progressive), capital and bond markets, and investment incentives and penalties.

5)     The final section will bring together the above policy options, providing insight in to the political mechanisms necessary to trigger a cascade of technical and financial action.

The task ahead of the UCL-Lancet Commission is indeed ambitious, with more than 60 academics and experts from around the world working on it right up until early 2015. The key findings of our work will take some time to come to light, but if the last 12 months are anything to go by, the results of the Commission will most certainly “be visionary”.

Climate Week 2014

By Ellie Forward, on 19 February 2014

From 3-9 March 2014, UCL Energy Institute and UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources staff and students will be blogging here daily to celebrate Climate Week 2014.

Topics will include:

  • Climate and health
  • Climate and poverty eradication
  • Climate and water
  • Climate and resources
  • Climate and energy

We will also be publishing a series of blog posts, focussing on themes relating to the newly launched 2014 UCL-Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health. The commission is an ambitious initiative bringing together senior international climate scientists, economists, energy experts, and health professionals to present mitigation and adaptation policies necessary to protect human health from climate change, and promote sustainable development. The Commission is truly interdisciplinary and international, consisting a tripartite collaboration between University College London, Tsinghua University, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Topics will include:

  • Climate Science & Health Impacts
  • Resilience & Adaptation
  • Energy & Technical Solutions
  • Finance & Economics
  • Political Mechanisms

Follow us on Twitter for regular updates on new blogs:

UCL Energy Institute

UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources