This post is by Kathryn Brown, director of climate change and evidence at The Wildlife Trusts.
Climate change is here. In 2022 we saw the highest ever temperature recorded of 40.3°C in Lincolnshire. Two thirds of rivers in England are still below normal levels, despite the rain we have seen across the country since the summer. And this year has had one of the highest numbers of wildfires on record in the UK and across Europe.
Are we prepared for this? No, we are not. You only need to read the opening line from any of the Climate Change’s Committee’s recent adaptation progress reports, or the latest UK Climate Change Risk Assessment. The conclusion is that action is lacking for many more risks than was the case even five years ago. We are going backwards on adaptation.
Together with Green Alliance, The Wildlife Trusts hosted an event on 20 October to look at why this is, and what the UK should focus on in the coming year. I spoke alongside Baroness Brown of Cambridge, chair of the UK Adaptation Committee, and experts Binyam Gebreyes and Peter Young. Here is a summary of the event’s conclusions.
There’s a leadership and policy gap
Too many people think that, if we get to net zero in the UK, our climate problems will be solved. This isn’t true. Even on a global net zero pathway (which we are very far from), we will still see substantial impacts. On a pathway based on current global emissions reduction commitments, we could see 2.5°C warming by the end of the century and, based on the current lack of action, warming will be even greater. At these levels, the global impacts of climate breakdown will be catastrophic. The government needs to do much more to get the message across that both adaptation and mitigation are critical.
We are also not seeing the right leadership from ministers. Part of the solution to integrating adaptation across all policies is the need to have an adaptation champion in government. We hope one will emerge from the newest tranche of ministers in the latest government line up.
The Climate Change Committee’s advice to government in 2021 focused on eight policy areas where integrating adaptation now is most pressing. Half of these policies were about the natural environment: improving terrestrial and freshwater habitats, better soil health and protecting productivity in the agriculture and forestry sectors. In addition, it emphasised risks to supply chains, energy system resilience, extreme heat impacts on public health and risks overseas which should be addressed now.
The UK Infrastructure Bank Bill is one of the largest opportunities we have for adaptation finance in the coming years, but adaptation has not been embedded within it. This should be a priority for getting the right resilience investment to the right places.
We are not just in the midst of a climate crisis, but a nature one as well. Fifteen per cent of species are at risk of extinction in the UK and, globally, the world has lost 70 per cent of its biodiversity since 1970. That loss is on the level of mass extinction. Adaptation should be one urgent means of bringing together actions to restore nature and improve climate resilience. However, the government recently failed to introduce even its statutory targets for nature recovery within the legal deadline required.
Global action needs to follow global rhetoric
The UK is a very visible player in the global discussion on adaptation. Its COP26 Presidency over the past year has been instrumental in getting consensus that developed countries have not delivered on the $100 billion climate finance promise for developing countries. Another highlight from COP26 was the agreement to double adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025. This makes recent backsliding on commitments more obvious. UK policy to reduce overseas development assistance over the past two years has been a major setback. The Green Climate Fund is postponing approval of important adaptation projects, including those in least developed countries, because funding promises have not been met. The government should not see climate finance as charity but as an important global commitment. It will be interesting to see how the UK’s reputation for leadership fares after COP27’s attention on adaptation, finance and loss and damage.
Adaptation needs much more finance
Globally there is a huge shortfall in adaptation finance. As much as six years ago, UNEP’s Climate Change Adaptation Finance Gap Report found there was an escalating annual financing gap for adaptation of between $140-300 billion by 2030, and that is still the case; in fact the gap has grown in its most recent 2022 report. Financing for nature-based solutions is a particular problem. The recent Finance gap for UK nature report, published in October 2021, highlighted a £44-£97 billion funding gap, in the UK alone, to meet nature-related goals over the next decade, including adaptation projects like natural flood management, peatland restoration and marine habitat restoration.
But adaptation projects shouldn’t only be looked at in terms of what they will cost. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that $1.8 trillion in investment across five key areas of climate adaptation measures could generate $7.1 trillion in benefits up to 2030. That’s a four-fold return on investment in less than ten years.
What should the UK do now?
The panel’s top asks of government were to: include an adaptation check on all relevant policies in its next set of national adaptation programmes, due from 2023. It should promise to meet all its global climate finance commitments. It should prioritise the natural environment: under the impacts of climate change, the scale of nature recovery required by 2030 will grow to colossal levels. Protecting 30 per cent of land and sea for nature by 2030 is the ambition needed to prevent the collapse of UK ecosystems. The Environmental Land Management scheme is a once in a generation opportunity to improve the resilience of the agricultural sector as well as reverse nature’s decline. The government needs to take that opportunity.
Adaptation should also be a core objective of the UK Infrastructure Bank. There should be a new asset class of adaptation bonds, extending the concept of green municipal bonds, to allow the pooling of public money with private finance to deliver high quality natural assets.
Finally, a vision for what a well-adapted country looks like is needed. If we know what the end point is, progress will be much easier to measure.