The risks of failing on climate adaptation: The UK case study

November 10, 2020

In November 2021, the UK government will host the landmark UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, putting a spotlight on the climate crisis.

Britain is currently among the top 20 CO2 emitters worldwide, yet the UK government has committed to zero its carbon footprint by 2050.

However, climate mitigation is no longer enough, as some change will be inevitable.

So, how is the UK doing with climate adaptation?

National adaptation plan: An unsatisfactory progress

The UK’s Thames Barrier, opened in 1982, was referred by the Global Commission on Adaptation as an iconic example of climate adaptation.

Since then, at least on paper, the UK seems to have done its homework in terms of climate adaptation policies. Government published a Climate Change Risk Assessment in 2017 and its second five-year National Adaptation Programme (NAP) in 2018, where the risk mitigation strategies are set out.

All the boxes have been ticked. Words sound good. What about deeds?

After fact checking the UK’s NAP in its progress report published in 2019, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) raised some concerns.

The government’s independent advisers on climate change demanded further planning to adapt in the face of a 4°C rise scenario, as the present NAP barely covers a 2°C increase prediction. CCC also pointed out NAP did not address neither the risks of unexpected events (e.g. methane release from frozen deposits) nor the impacts due to global trends. Finally, the climate advisers highlighted the need for additional funds to support adaptation practice.

What are the major risks of losing the race for resilience?

  • East England to live in a yellow submarine

Last February has been the wettest ever recorded for the UK. Storm Dennis-driven rainfall flooded over 1600 homes across England and Wales. As a result, hundreds of residents were forced out of their houses. Storm Ciara, which had saturated the British ground a week before Dennis’ surge, amplified the flooding extent.

Based on the predictive map generated by Climate Central, large swathes of the UK land (mostly East and North-East regions) will be underwater by 2050. This is due to sea level rising in 30 years hence.

To save English people from investing on a submarine, last September the UK government updated its National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) strategy. Besides flood defense systems, this new blueprint includes measures and funds to make British homes and businesses more resilient. The FCERM’s release was praised by the CCC chair, who will lead its assessment in the coming years.

  • The consequences of tropical summers in the South East

By 2050, London will have the same temperature as Barcelona. This might sound like amazing news for many Britons, but it is not. The Mediterranean-like temperatures could come at a high price, i.e. drought and health issues.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

In 2020, the UK land has dramatically switched from the February record-breaking rainfall to the driest May in 124 years. The lack of rainwater over the spring alarmed farmers, who reported serious issues for rainfed grass and cereal crops. If a more efficient water management will not be promptly adopted, the south-east of England will run out of water within the next 20 years.

Last August, southeastern England experienced a record heat wave, with tropical temperatures measured at night over a few consecutive days. High night-time temperatures can cause sleep deprivation, which has serious short- and long-term negative effects on people’s health.

Central London was one of the places warming up the most over the August hot spell. This is due to the urban heat island (UHI) effect. Highly urbanised areas become overheated because of lack of green areas, air pollution and other factors.

The urban climate model UrbClim studied the UHI effect in London in 2011. Simulation data revealed an average temperature difference of 4°C between the city centre and more peripheral areas.

According to the UK Met Office’s climate projections, night-time temperatures over the summer months in the UK’s major urban areas will increase by 0.48 and 0.55C per decade during the 1981-2079 period.

Although the South East is likely to be the most affected area in the future, UHI was found to be responsible for ca. 50% of the heat-induced mortality during the 2003 heatwave in the West Midlands.

Monitoring the evolution of this phenomenon is a hot topic, as 90% of the UK’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, and current housing won’t bear the extreme heat in the coming decades.

To reduce harm from severe heat, the UK government issued a heatwave plan in 2019. The document introduces the heat-health watch system, providing early warning and advice to the public and to health and social care workers over the summer.

Although UHI was covered in further research conducted by the UK government on overheating in new homes, neither the latter study nor the heatwave plan mentioned any adaptation measures to make British housing more heat-resilient.

How can adaptation outpace climate change rate in the UK?

Last October, the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, the SPF UK Climate Resilience Programme Champions at the University of Leeds, and the CCC co-hosted a climate change adaptation conference.

Experts outlined some key guidelines to achieve an adequate adaptation to the changing climate:

  • More attention on climate adaptation rather than on mitigation only;
  • Definition of clearer objectives to aim for in the near future;
  • Design appropriate indicators to monitor adaptation progress over time;
  • A better collaboration among government, researchers, businesses, and citizens, who should be included in the conversation about climate change adaptation.

Also, it was pointed out the next UK’s NAP, due to be published in 2023, should extend the implementation of following adaptation techniques:

Further solutions which have not been explored include:

Being one of the most advanced countries on the planet, the challenges faced by the UK along its race for resilience serve as a warning for the entire world.

In parallel to carbon emissions reduction, an adequate and timely adaptation to the global warming effects is essential to ensure a climate-resilient life on Earth.


Teaser photo credit: By Andrew1829 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83871763

Antonio Salituro

Antonio Salituro is an environmental engineer and has got a PhD in a climate change-related topic. Furthermore, he is a freelance sustainability copywriter who promotes environmental sustainability on his own blog.

Tags: climate change adaptation strategies, UK climate change policy