The government has just received the clearest, and most alarming, picture yet of what the changing climate could mean for the future of the UK.
Whilst the devastating global impacts of climate change are well documented, the details in the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC’s) Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk brings it much closer to home. The committee’s projections for the UK should send shockwaves through government and be a wake up call that we need to focus on climate adaptation.
The CCC’s assessment is independent advice which the government will use to inform its own risk assessment report. These reports are published every five years and set out not only the risks but also the opportunities facing the UK from climate change.
Climate change is here to stay
Today’s report from the CCC is clear: climate change is here, and here to stay and, whilst every effort must be made to get on track to net zero emissions, we must also learn to adapt to a different, hotter climate.
It shows new evidence of the widening gap between the level of risk the UK faces due to climate change and the extent of adaptation currently underway. We are falling behind and things have got worse since the last risk assessment.
The report addresses risks associated with eight areas which broadly cover the natural environment, including natural carbon storage, the supply of food and agriculture, and the impact on human health and the economy.
The UK’s climate has changed over time and sea levels have risen by 16 centimetres since 1900. Episodes of extreme heat are becoming more frequent, with the chance of a hot summer like 2018’s now up to 25 per cent per year, compared to less than ten per cent a few decades ago. The UK will see changes in weather patterns, with greater flooding and coastal erosion in some places and severe drought in others.
These might just sound like dry statistics, but the reality they foretell is stark. There were more than 2,500 heat related deaths during the 2020 heatwave in England, higher than at any time since records began. Evidence cited in the report shows that, unless there are adequate adaptation measures, by 2050 this number could more than triple, from around 2,000 per year to around 7,000.
Risks from flooding too, are rated with the highest urgency score by the CCC. From severe damage to homes, to issues with transport, it also flags that flooding can widen inequalities; people living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are exposed to higher annual damages from flooding per person than those living in England.
Bad decision making has occurred in a vacuum of not fully realising the extent of climate impacts on the UK. For instance, over half a million new homes have been built in England that are not resilient to greater heat. This will result in homeowners or tenants having to cope with the consequences of increasing overheating and water issues in future.
Its time to adapt to the new reality
The report doesn’t shy away from shocking figures, but it also offers advice which, if followed would see the UK on the right track to prepare for the changing climate while maximising benefits to the economy, our communities and nature.
We need to understand that, whilst the future will be different even if the climate warms by a small amount, there are clear benefits from acting now rather than later. Despite a shifting baseline, nature can be a great ally. Nature, as outlined in the recent Dasgupta Review, underpins our economy and can support solutions to climate change. Woodland planting, peatland restoration and urban greening can all help prepare us for a warming world, as well as having positive impacts on people’s health and wellbeing, and preventing nature decline, so we don’t lose the many other advantages we gain from greater biodiversity.
Net zero policies should be seen as two sides of the same coin, simultaneously providing both adaptation and carbon reduction. In this year, when the world comes together for the COP26 Glasgow climate summit, the UK must respond to this vision of the future provided today by the CCC, to make sure that delay and inaction does not lead to the worst coming to pass.