My dream 10-point plan for adapting to the effects of climate change

Residents and rescue crews fit sand bags to stop the water entering houses after the combined effects of storms Ciara and Dennis
Residents and rescue crews fit sand bags to stop the water entering houses after the combined effects of storms Ciara and Dennis. Feb 2020, Gloucestershire (c) Peter Llewellyn.

Kathryn Brown, Head of Adaptation at the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) and Honorary Grantham Research Fellow, blogs on what she would like to see in an action plan for adapting to climate change. This follows the announcement of a ten-point plan last week to transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 2050.

Headshot of Kathryn Brown
Kathryn Brown

Addressing climate change globally requires a two-pronged approach. Countries around the world must act together to reduce emissions urgently, to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement in keeping global temperature rise below 2°C. The UK has signed up to a target to cut its net emissions to net zero by 2050, and last week’s announcement of a ten-point plan represented a significant step forward by the Prime Minister in putting in taking steps to achieve this.

Even in the best-case scenario however, of a 1.5-2°C increase in global temperature compared with temperatures before the industrial revolution, there will be challenging impacts from climate change that we need to adapt to, globally and in the UK. At the moment, the pledges and policies made by governments around the world remain insufficient to meet that goal; the world could be heading for global warming of 3°C or more. We don’t want this to happen, but we have to consider those conditions, as they remain a likely outcome at the present time. We also need to think about the consequences of less likely – but still plausible – increases in global temperature of 4°C or more.

Adaptation – the ‘Cinderella’ of climate change

Although plans to adapt and cut emissions are needed together, integrating them in the UK government policy has been a challenge, as has ensuring that adaptation gets sufficient attention. It is often referred to as the ‘Cinderella’ of climate change.

The night before the Prime Minister’s announcement, I actually dreamt about a ten-point plan for adaptation to sit alongside the net zero plan. The recommendations in my plan have featured in our recent progress reports to government, and together would represent a huge step forward in ambition for adaptation; bringing it closer to what we have seen recently on mitigation.

In my plan are:

1.  A joint buildings policy for low-carbon and resilient homes, which would address the combined risks of overheating to people (currently we see around 2,000 heat-related deaths per year) as well as flooding and water scarcity, alongside a plan to upgrade every home for low-carbon heating and hot water, and measures to save energy and lower bills.

2. A long-term goal to provide resilience to flooding for everyone. Around 1.4 million people currently live in areas at significant flood risk in England, and this could more than double by the 2080s without additional action. There has been a good shift on managing flooding and coastal change with the publication of the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy and Government Policy Statement in October, but specifying a national goal has remained elusive. We also want to see a big upsurge in property-level protection like door guards and waterproof plastering, for those homes and businesses that cannot be protected by flood defences.

3. Peatlands are critical for carbon storage and water regulation. If peatlands are not in good condition, they are at much higher risk of degradation and carbon loss as the climate changes. I want to see a ban on burning of peatlands, and the sale and use of peat-based compost. Lowland peat is an important agricultural soil, but is also degrading quickly. Increased paludiculture (wetland farming) on lowland peat would help to retain the carbon that is left. One of my heroes, Monty Don, has a lot to say about reducing the use of peat in gardening too and we had a chat about it in my dream!

Headshot of Monty Don
Monty Don (c) jo-h, Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

4. Parks, gardens and outdoor spaces have become sacred havens for city dwellers during lockdown, but there is strong evidence for their widespread benefit, which is summarised in some research I did at the Grantham Institute with the brilliant Dr Ana Mijic. Urban greenspace is declining, however. The Adaptation Committee has been calling for a national target for increasing urban greenspace for some time. A doubling of urban greenspace would have multiple benefits for lowering carbon emissions, and supporting biodiversity, health, flood and heat resilience.

5. Although it is now felt highly unlikely that the Government will take forward Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act, I would add a legal requirement for green sustainable urban drainage in new developments. Guidance has been strengthened in recent years, but there is still poor data about the uptake of green solutions for surface water flooding, such as storm ponds or swales, and issues around adoption and maintenance of these important assets.

 6. In addition to a lack of data on surface water flooding, the CCC lack data on resilience actions by infrastructure providers, and especially on the fragility of infrastructure networks, including roads, rail, energy systems and ICT.  The Government has powers to require infrastructure operators to report on climate risks and adaptation through the Adaptation Reporting Power, but currently only asks for voluntary reporting, meaning those organisations that are least likely to act may also choose not to report. The Adaptation Committee would like to see mandatory reporting. The Government and infrastructure operators also need to pay more attention to infrastructure interdependencies, so I would set up a new unit to address risks from infrastructure interdependencies, drawing on a lot of good research that is underway on this issue.

7. The CCC recently held a joint conference with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and Climate Resilience Champions at the University of Leeds on adapting to higher levels of global warming (more than 3°C). One of the main discussion points from the conference was how the impacts of climate change overseas could be even more significant for the UK than direct climate impacts, due to the risks to food security, supply chains and global security. The Government’s National Adaptation Programme does not currently include actions to consider and plan for these risks. I would like to see a new Cabinet Office and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office unit to assess risks to the UK from climate change overseas, linked to our international adaptation work.

8. In the more extreme scenarios, we could see public water supply deficits on 3 billion litres per day at the end of the century; a key part of adapting to the risk of reduced water availability is lowering demand. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been planning more work on consulting on a water efficiency labelling scheme for appliances like taps, showers and washing machines, and a new national water consumption target for households. However, this work has been delayed to 2021. I would like to see both a consumption target and water efficiency labelling scheme put in place in 2021 to help drive down water use to improve our resilience to drought.

Flames engulf moorland during a dry spell along the North York Moors in late winter near Goathland, Yorkshire, UK.
Flames engulf moorland during a dry spell along the North York Moors in late winter near Goathland, Yorkshire, UK. (c) Danielrao

9. Much of the support services and requirements for government departments to make plans for adaptation have been stripped away over the past ten years.  I want to reinstate support services for businesses and local authorities on adaptation and a dedicated funding streams for local solutions, such as through new green finance streams.

10. The CCC wants to see more action by government departments to take adaptation seriously; Defra cannot do this alone. I would reinstate departmental climate change plans that include both adaptation and mitigation; requiring the inclusion of plans and actions to adapt to a 2°C rise in global temperature and consideration of 4°C.  Defra has an important job to coordinate this action across government, but has a tiny team. A tripling of the size of the team would bring it closer to 30 people, the size it was back in 2008-2009, where it implemented an effective and strong coordination and research function. 

Finally, another outcome from our 3°C+ conference was the suggestion that a national conversation is needed, possibly through a dedicated citizen’s assembly, to consider levels of acceptable risk, how to address inequalities, and who should be responsible for different types of adaptation. There is very little data available on public awareness of climate risks, though some new research is coming through including that funded through UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

That’s my dream – and our Committee’s recommendations.  We will be reporting on progress next in summer 2021.  It would be incredible to see some of these recommendations becoming reality, placing adaptation on a more integrated and urgent footing. Cinderella could yet get to the ball before the clock strikes midnight.

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