The UK’s new adaptation agenda

Published in Green Futures, April 2012. Original article here.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 15.14.54The UK’s new adaptation agenda
As erratic weather puts increasing pressure on infrastructure, Defra’s Climate Change Risk Assessment report has provided a map to show where our efforts are needed the most.

A new report that sets out how the UK is likely to be affected by climate change has paved the way for the Government to outline solutions in its National Adaptation Programme.

The Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) report, carried out by the Government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is the most comprehensive evidence to date of how climate change will affect all aspects of our lives.

“This is the first time we are looking at the whole of the UK, at all these sectors, at the same time,” says Claire Barnett, principal consultant on climate change for Amec, 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.”

While 50,000 hectares of land are currently at risk of flooding, the report projects this number to rise to 200,000 by 2080. Other risks include how higher temperatures will lead to the number of rail bucklings rising from today’s 50 to as much as 240 by 2080. Furthermore, between 27 and 59 million people in the UK will live in an area with water deficits by 2050.

Threats to eleven distinctive industries, spanning from agriculture and energy to forestry and health, have been analysed in this report. Also included are biodiversity and ecosystems; business, industry and services; built environments; floods and costal erosion; marine and fisheries; transport; and water.

So what should be done differently as a result of this research? This is the question at the heart of the Government’s National Adaptation Programme, which is now in the works. £2.17 billion has already been set aside for measures against flooding and coastal erosion, with other efforts already underway include guidance for local authorities on how to tackle issues such as road surface maintenance, and Network Rail’s focus on drainage and embankment stability to stay ahead of the climate change curve.

Infrastructure systems will feel the pressure on several fronts as weather patters grow more extreme. “Making sure we can all access what we need locally will mean we are less vulnerable to transport disruption caused by increasingly volatile weather,” says Peter Lipman, director of projects and innovation of Sustrans. “Cutting car use in favour of walking and cycling now will reduce climate change and make us better able to adapt what may happen in future.”

But the key challenge will be to implement action across industry boundaries. “Risks are not found in isolation, meaning this represents an opportunity to collaborate,” says Barnett; the report has enabled evidence gathered by one sector to be shared with others. Take the problem of overheated buildings: the number of days averaging over 26°C could reach up to 121 by the 2080s, up from 18°C today. This has consequences for planning and design, affecting everything from homes, offices and hospitals to railways, power stations and water reservoirs. Similarly, flooding will become a problem not only for immediately related sectors such as housing and transport, but also the energy and water sectors. This became evident during the 2007 floods in England and Northern Ireland, which caused damage to power substations and water treatment works.

“The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) has long advocated design strategies to adapt to future climate changes in order to ensure the sustainable development of our built environment. However, many of those commissioning new build or retrofit still do not fully understand the case for adaptation,” says James Drinkwater, policy officer at RIBA. “As the CCRA notes, building resilience against potential threats like flooding is a long-term investment. We need to enable people to make a cost-benefit analysis of the long-term risks in order to ensure that resilience is built into projects in the years ahead.”

The CCRA report has been extensively peer-reviewed, meaning it is an increasingly realistic, rather than fatalistic, picture of what will happen in the future. As the threat of climate change turns from theories to facts, the groundwork is in place for hard-hitting initiatives.

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