The UK is ‘unprepared’ for climate change

The expert advisory Committee on Climate Change is urging the government to pursue ‘low-regrets’ policies to protect against changing weather. The Confederation of British Industry also wants more incentives for companies to take climate threats seriously.

The government has taken “very little tangible action” to ensure the UK is prepared for floods and storms caused by global warming, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has warned.1

Climate change is already having an impact in the UK, the expert advisory body says. Since the 1970s average annual temperatures have risen by 1°C and the spring and summer arrive on average 11 days earlier. Extreme weather events such as floods, heat-waves and droughts are likely to be more frequent. The UK needs to prepare for these impacts as it pursues emissions cuts.

The committee argues that too little is being done to adapt. It recommends actions in five priority areas:

  • Land use planning: The government must ensure cities have adequate green space to help drain surface water. Homes must not be built on flood plains.
  • Infrastructure: Roads, railways, power stations and sewage treatment works must be designed to cope with severe weather events and changing consumer demand.
  • Buildings: Homes and offices should be designed and refurbished to withstand floods and rising temperatures, and water efficiency should be improved.
  • Natural resources: Ecological resilience to climate change should be enhanced by creating, protecting and restoring natural habitats. Water resources also need to be more sustainably managed as they come under increasing pressure.
  • Emergency planning: Contingency plans need to be devised to care for the most vulnerable groups during heatwaves and floods. Business continuity plans should also be developed.

The committee points to evidence that the government has had some success in raising awareness around adaptation. However, it found little evidence of coordinated action, and adaptive capacity remains lacking across the public, private and third sectors. 

Lord John Krebs, chairman of the CCC climate adaptation sub-committee, said: “Adaptation is often name-checked in policies, but it is often unclear exactly what is meant.” The UK should focus on outcomes, he argues, aiming to minimise the costs and damages from climate change while maximising the opportunities.

One of the key challenges identified by the CCC is the difficulty of measuring success in adaptation decision-making. Mitigation policies, it suggests, lend themselves more easily to clear targets, such as the 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

Adaptation, however, has no equivalent. There are no government targets or benchmarks, and progress is far more ambiguous. Lord Krebbs said this needs addressing.

There is also great uncertainty about the UK’s future climate. As it changes, the earth’s natural systems begin to respond to man-made warming and feedbacks kick in. This increases uncertainty, and the scale, timing and nature of impacts vary locally.

The CCC argues that adaptation policies should be flexible, and “low-regrets” options should be prioritised.  Concluding, the CCC report argues that government action on adaptation is not yet being systematically translated into action on the ground to reduce the UK’s vulnerability to the changing climate.

“The UK must start acting to prepare for climate change now… We can save money in the short term and avoid large extra costs in the future,” said Lord Krebs.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has also reported that the government has a key role to play in helping businesses prepare for climate change.2  The private sector needs clear, consistent signals and coherent far-sighted planning, it argues.

It recommends that data on climate change risk projections be made publicly available and tailored “best-prediction models” be more accessible for non-climate specialists.

Short-term pressures and demands mean that understanding climate risks is often not enough to prompt firms to take enough action. The CCC and the CBI urge the government to go further in removing barriers for firms and providing incentives for action.

The CBI cites examples of businesses acting to mitigate climate change and identifies the UK as a world leader in climate science and risk assessment. But is suggests progress is now urgently needed in the equally important task of adapting to the climate change that the UK is already committed to.