ANALYSIS: Extreme weather forces debate on climate adaptation

Pressure is mounting on society to 'accept and adapt' following news this week from the Met Office that UK businesses are at an increased risk of flooding due to extreme rainfall.

After a year of unpredictable weather in which hosepipe bans were swiftly replaced with periods of tumultuous flooding, some industry observers see the extreme conditions as an inevitable consequence of climate change and are arguing for adaptation rather than prevention as a response. 

Engineering consultancy WSP’s head of water Ola Holmstrom believes that it is just a matter of time before real droughts and rain periods disappear.

“We could just as easily have a drought winter and a flood summer – as seen this year,” she said.

“Adapting to these new weather patterns is the challenge; it requires innovative thinking from those with responsibility for risk management as well as commitment at every level of society, from individuals to government”.

Holmstrom stressed that a long-term solution needed to involve planning and adapting approaches and that public funding should be ringfenced for this.

“Our core infrastructure will need to be adapted, re-enforced and in some cases completely re-built which comes with a cost,” she maintained.

Similar adaptive approaches were put forward in Ireland last week as the Irish Environment Minister Phil Hogan announced that the draft Climate Change Bill was close to being finalised.  

The Irish Government has launched a national climate change adaptation framework which it is hoped, will mitigate any negative impacts global warming could have on the country.

According to Hogan, addressing climate change requires two types of action responses – mitigation and adaptation.

“Over the past decade or more, the predominant focus has been on strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, findings of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change have revealed that some level of climate change is inevitable,” he said.

However, he also maintained that “significant progress” in preventative measures, aimed at addressing greenhouse gas emissions, had been made over the past year.

But achieving climate target levels is set to become more challenging – and expensive – according to recent analysis from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

One of the IIASA report’s co-authors, Keywan Riahi, warns that the longer world nations hold off from implementing meaningful measures to tackle global warming, the more hopeless the situation will be become.

“With a 20-year delay, you can throw as much money as you have at the problem, and the best outcome you can get is a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rise below two degrees,” he said.

Might then whether we sink or swim (almost literally) come down to our ability to adapt?

Hydro International’s UK wastewater division operations director Chris Day seems to think so. He accepts that heavy rainfall in the future is par for the course in the UK and that adaptive measures must be taken to mitigate water pollution.

Writing in his blog on edie, Day picks out the need to improve combined sewer overflows (CSO) as a specific step in adapting to heavier rainfall.

“As water companies develop their AMP6 investment programmes, surely we should go further and consider the need to upgrade CSOs to meet water quality requirements?” he questioned.

NGO Waterwise managing director Jacob Tompkins also has ideas based on adaption for addressing water management in the UK.

Writing for Utility Week, he pointed out: “Once you start an arms race with nature you will be trapped in a cycle of bigger and bigger reservoirs and higher and higher flood defences until you eventually lose.”

For Tompkins other approaches would be more beneficial. He argues that it is time to focus less on large reservoirs and to concentrate on distributed infrastructure.

“Rather than having huge one-off concrete structure that will be empty if it rains in the wrong place we should look at local storage in swales and wetlands, domestic storage through rainwater harvesting,” he maintained.

Perhaps, as evolution has so often bore witness, adaption is the key to survival – that, given the proper funding for innovative solutions, it is better to be realistic and ready for the worst than to be caught unawares.

Growing opinion certainly seems to reflect this.

Conor McGlone

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