Defra outlines five-year climate action plan in national risk assessment

On the same day that the Met Office confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year since records began, the UK Government has today (18 January) highlighted the need to ramp up national efforts on climate change over the next five years in a new report of its own.

Defra’s 2017 climate change risk assessment, which draws on expert input from a range of world-leading scientists and academic institutes, outlines the Department’s views across six priority risk areas, including flooding, natural capital, water shortages, coastal change, and food protection and trade.

Within the 24-page document, the Government pledges a continued commitment to climate issues post-Brexit, with an assurance that the country’s national targets will remain “unaffected” by the decision to leave the European Union (EU).

Defra Minister Lord Gardiner said: “Our changing climate is one of the most serious environmental challenges that we face as a nation and that is why we are taking action, from improving flood defences across the country to securing our critical food and water supplies.

“The latest assessment will help us develop our long-term programme to tackle these risks so we can continue our work to protect the nation better today and for future generations.”

National resilience

Fittingly, the UK’s climate change risk assessment was published at the same time as new figures from the UK Met Office, Nasa and Noaa in the US revealed that 2016 was the hottest year on record, with scientists firmly putting the blame on human activities that drive climate change.

In light of this mounting scientific evidence of global warming, Defra’s report goes much further than its first assessment, published in 2012, in considering international climate risks that could have consequences for the UK.

Indeed, drastic domestic action will be required to prevent the costs and disruption caused by extreme weather. The flooding of winter 2015-16 broke rainfall records and cost nearly £250m in damages, with subsequent calls for the Government to overhaul its flood protection system. In it’s report, the Government vows to ensure that businesses and communities have the resources and information required to remain protected from risk related to flooding, in addition to other challenges such as water security, food production and biodiversity.

The report also identifies significant threats to the UK’s natural capital and the goods and services it provides, such as timber, food carbon storage, and points out potential opportunities for agriculture and forestry in the form of extended growing seasons, increased productivity and new crop varieties that would have potential benefits for domestic food production.

‘Unique opportunity’

Defra Ministers are currently busy developing a much-awaited 25-Year Environment Plan to improve the state of the UK’s natural environment and the resilience of its infrastructure. The findings of today’s report will inform the considerations in that plan, which has suffered a series of setbacks in the wake of EU referendum.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit’s impact on the UK’s climate responsibilities, today’s report states that the decision to leave the bloc offers a “unique opportunity to shape our environment and economy for the benefit of all”.

While yesterday’s Brexit speech from Prime Minister Theresa May may have failed to directly address the UK’s future environmental obligations, this latest Defra assessment insists that targets set under the Climate Change Act 2008 will remain “unaffected” by the decision to leave the EU.

The report finds that climate change will present risks for food production, trade and supply chains. The Government, however, dismisses the recommendation that new policy is needed to manage risks to food prices, instead taking a “more optimistic” view that the markets and diverse sources of supply can provide resilience.

Commenting on the risk assessment, Imperial College London co-director of the Grantham Institute Professor Joanna Haigh said: “We have to remember that our civilisation has developed to thrive in a particular climate and as this changes it is throwing up all sorts of challenges to our way of life.

“We can adapt to some impacts of climate change, as the Government’s risk assessment shows – but only if we keep climate impacts within reasonable bounds by reducing carbon emissions.”

Next steps

The risks set out in today’s assessment will be addressed in a National Adaptation Programme, which will develop a course of action for the Government, businesses, and other stakeholders to build the nation’s resilience to climate change. The Programme, which will work with business and industry to establish areas of Government support, is due to be published in 2018.

A review from the first National Adaptation Programme, released in 2013, reveals that 109 of 370 actions have been completed and 215 are on track.

George Ogleby

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