The UK’s new adaptation agenda

Sensemaking / The UK’s new adaptation agenda

As climate change turns from theory to fact, can the UK prepare for a resilient future?

30 Apr 2012

As climate change turns from theory to fact, can the UK prepare for a resilient future?

What will higher temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather mean for the UK in years to come? It's a severe forecast, and if infrastructure and industries are going to stand up to it, they'll have to be prepared. Now, the Government is looking to work with businesses, civil society and local governments on a new National Adaptation Programme, set to launch in 2013.

This impetus for action comes in response to the most comprehensive report to date on how the planet's stress levels will affect lives in the UK. The Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA), funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved administrations, explores the implications across 11 sectors, including agriculture, the built environment, business, energy and transport. The assessment has undergone extensive peer review, to give a realist – rather than fatalist – sense of what's to come.

"This is the first time we are looking at the whole of the UK, and at all these sectors, at the same time", says Claire Barnett, climate change lead at AMEC UK's environmental arm, which contributed to the report. "The point of this study was not to undertake significant volumes of new research but to bring existing evidence into one package."

So, what is the UK up against? According to the report, the number of days with a maximum daily temperature exceeding 26°C could rise from an average of 18 per year in London today to between 30 and 1202 by the 2080s, increasing the risk of buildings overheating.

High summer temperatures will also put severe strain on the rail network, with the number of track bucklings projected to rise from 50 per year to between 130 and 240, over the same timescale.

Then there's the water problem. Today, 30,000 hectares (ha) of high-quality horticultural and arable land are at risk of flooding at least once every three years, but this may rise to 130,000ha by the 2080s. Drought is another cause for concern. Between 27 and 59 million people in the UK could be living in areas affected by water deficits, come 2050.

Time indeed to start planning. As Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman argues, the "economy cannot grow if there are repeated power failures, or goods cannot be transported because roads are flooded and railways have buckled, or if intense rainfall or high temperatures disrupt Wi-Fi signals".

It's not yet clear what exactly the National Adaptation Programme will offer in resource terms, but its aims are to provide leadership through information and advice, address any barriers to change, and encourage action and partnerships among stakeholders. Already, though, Defra is pumping £2.17 billion into measures against flooding and coastal erosion, and offering guidance to local authorities on how to tackle issues such as road surface maintenance. Meanwhile, Network Rail is focusing on drainage and embankment stability to minimise disruption from floods.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all will be joining up approaches across regions and sectors. "Risks are not found in isolation", says Barnett. "This represents an opportunity to collaborate." And here, she says, is the great value of the CCRA: it means that evidence gathered by one sector can now be shared with the others.

A joined-up response should also strengthen local economies. As Peter Lipman, Director of Projects and Innovation of Sustrans, argues, "Making sure we can all access what we need, locally, will mean we are less vulnerable to transport disruption caused by increasingly volatile weather."

Building resilience against threats like flooding is a long-term investment

Of course, being prepared for the future means investing now. James Drinkwater, Policy Officer at The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), hopes the report will convince planners to take long-term risks into account: "The RIBA has long advocated design strategies to adapt to future climate changes. However, many of those commissioning new build or retrofit still do not fully understand the case for adaptation. As the CCRA notes, building resilience against potential threats like flooding is a long-term investment."

As climate change turns from theory to fact, the weather is no longer merely the nation's favourite talking-point. It's the new order. – Jessica Furseth

AMEC is a Forum for the Future Partner.

Photo: iStockphoto / Thinkstock

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