The climate agenda has been dominated by carbon reduction. A new assessment of climate risk in the UK highlights the need for urgent action on resilience too. Nikki van Dijk explains.
“Adaptation remains the Cinderella of climate change: under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored,” said Baroness Brown, chair of the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) adaptation subcommittee, launching the CCC’s third independent climate change risk assessment for the UK (CCRA3) on 16 June.
As the UK prepares to host the COP26 international climate congress in Glasgow this November, carbon reduction is the primary focus of attention. However, CCRA3 highlights that even under the most successful emissions reduction scenario, the global climate will change. The ambition is to prevent the global average temperature from rising more than 2°C above the pre-industrial average, with a stretch target of 1.5°C. But at present, global carbon emissions put the world on a trajectory for 4°C of warming.
Even at 1.5°C warmer, the frequency and severity of climate-related weather events will be much worse than today, and rise exponentially with increasing temperature.
CCRA3 sets out what climate change means for the UK. It identifies sixty-one risks and opportunities that are “fundamental to every aspect of life in the UK: our natural environment, our health, our homes, the infrastructure on which we rely, the economy.”
The report adds that “alarmingly, evidence shows that the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk. The UK has the capacity and the resources to respond effectively to these risks, yet it has not done so. Acting now will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences.”
Eight risks are highlighted as requiring particularly urgent attention:
- Risks to the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species
- Risks to soil health from increased flooding and drought
- Risks to natural carbon stores and sequestration leading to increased emissions
- Risks to crops, livestock and commercial trees
- Risks to supply of food, goods and vital services due to climate-related collapse of supply chains and distribution networks
- Risks to people and the economy from climate-related failure of the power system
- Risks to human health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in homes and other buildings
- Risks from the impacts of climate change internationally
Attention is also focused on infrastructure, in particular risk to power, water, transport and communications networks from cascading failures; risks to assets and services from flooding, erosion and subsidence; risks from water scarcity and low river flows; and risks from extreme storms and temperatures. CCRA3 draws attention to the interdependency between built and natural systems, requiring systems awareness and systems-based solutions.
10 principles for adaptation
While CCRA3 is focused on the UK, its findings and recommendations are applicable across the world: the United Nations Environment Programme ‘Adaptation Gap Report 2020’ stated that financing and implementation of adaptation globally currently fall “far short” of what is needed.
CCRA3 sets out 10 principles for adaptation:
- Set a vision for ‘adapting well’ – a sustainable and prosperous future for all
- Integrate adaptation into policy, strategy and planning
- Plan for 2°C and assess the risks for 4°C – while cutting carbon emissions in order to achieve 1.5°C: it’s still attainable if everybody plays their part
- Avoid lock-in by keeping plans flexible and allowing for early adaptation
- Prepare for unpredictable extremes – local climate variations can be sudden and extreme
- Assess interdependencies – between the natural and built environments, between assets and infrastructure systems, and across supply chains; understand the potential for cascade failures.
- Understand threshold effects – points at which ‘non-linear’ change can occur because of change in a climate variable
- Address inequalities – ensure that adaptation/resilience benefits all of society, with particular attention to the most disadvantaged
- Consider opportunities
- Commit funding, resource resilience properly, develop metrics, conduct and share research
Organisations engaged in climate resilience – including ourselves – are already putting these principles into practice. But not enough organisations yet are engaged, and there are a lot of gaps. As a member of the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment, we’re putting partnership working into practice to change that. We are developing a common methodology for integrating climate resilience into cash flow modelling and creating case studies that demonstrate the financial benefit of investment in resilience.
Our purpose is to improve society by considering social outcomes in everything we do. Advancing better social outcomes depends on there being climate-resilient natural and built systems. We are helping our clients understand how climate risks could affect them – their existing assets and operations, and the new projects they undertake.
For our clients, for us, and for society, being future-proof is important. We’re carbon neutral and will be net-zero by 2040. And we’re working with clients internationally to develop and implement net-zero strategies. Together, we’re combating the causes of climate change. And by planning ahead, making our own operations and those of our clients adaptable to 2°C or more of climate change, we’re also combating the effects of climate change.
Tackling climate change requires action on two fronts: net-zero carbon and adaptive resilience. As the UK prepares for COP26, it is important to emphasise these two equally important facets. The risks associated with climate change are unavoidable but we can control how severely they impact on us and society by turning resilience from the Cinderella of climate change into a princess.