Cost of climate damage to UK could triple without better adaptation plans, CCC warns
Climate risks to the UK are increasing in number and magnitude more rapidly than expected, with billions of pounds worth of infrastructure at risk in the coming decades.
That is the stark warning of the latest report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – the UK government’s independent advisory body on climate issues.
The assessment of climate risk, published today (15 June), classes some 60% of the risks assessed as requiring the highest level or urgency, up from 36% at the last assessment in 2016. No risks have decreased in urgency. This means that the number of fisks which will crystalise, bearing a price tag of more than £1bn, is likely to triple by the 2080s, even if the UK and the world manages to deliver the Paris Agreement’s less ambitious 2C trajectory. The latest UN Emissions Gap report forecast a 3.2C trajectory.
Hundreds of specific risks are covered in the report and the CCC has grouped them into eight priority areas. Each area requires “immediate attention”, defined as policy action within the next two years and large-scale programmes being completed within the next five years. The priority areas are:
1) Risks to the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species
2) Risks to soil health from increased flooding and drought
3) Risks to natural carbon stores and sequestration, leading to increased emissions
4) Risks to crops, livestock and commercial trees
5) Risks to the supply of food and goods for vital services due to the climate-related collapse of supply chains and distribution networks
6) Risks to people and the economy from a climate-related failure to the power system
7) Risks to human health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in buildings
8) Risks to the UK from climate change impacts overseas
The report, in full, is some 1,500 pages long, but the headline figures are clear. The UK’s average land temperature is now 1.2C higher than pre-industrial levels; UK sea levels are up 16cm since 1900; more than 4,000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England since 2018 and, since 2016, more than 570,000 homes have been built in areas not resilient to high temperatures.
Also stated in the report is the Met Office’s recent finding that there is a 90% chance that one of the next five years will be the hottest on record, both for the UK and the world.
“Expected changes in the UK’s climate by 2050 are largely independent of the pathway of global emissions,” the report warns. “A summer as hot as in 2018 – the joint hottest on record – for the UK could be normal summer conditions by 2050.
“The UK’s average winter could be around 1C warmer and around 5% wetter. An increase in both the intensity of winter rainfall and the number of wet days is expected.”
These forecasts are based on the world capping temperature increase to 2C. If the trajectory exceeds 2C, the report warns, sea levels could be up to 80cm higher in 2100 than in 2000; average summers could be up to 5C warmer and 40% drier; while the average winter could be up to 3C warmer and 30% wetter.
The implications for sectors including agriculture and housebuilding in the 2-4C temperature scenario are major. This scenario would also place increased stress on the healthcare system and its impacts will likely be amplified for rural and coastal communities.
UK policy preparedness
Whether the temperature increase is capped at, or exceeds 2C, the UK is unprepared in terms of its infrastructure and policy, the CCC is warning. The report states that, given that changes to the UK climate are largely independent of its own net-zero transition or global efforts to reduce emissions in the coming decades, policymakers can be more certain of the future when developing long-term supports.
The UK recently published an updated adaptation plan ahead of COP26, where it will be encouraging all other nations to follow suit. The CCC’s report accuses this plan of containing loopholes, so that good adaptation planning will not necessarily be integrated into all related plans and policies. It states: “The Government has to date not heeded the CCC’s advice on the importance of this plan or on funding it adequately. This needs to change.”
Ministers are also broadly failing to quantify and mitigate risks from climate change impacts overseas, the CCC argues. The UK notably sources around 45% of its food from overseas annually and is classed as just 18% self-sufficient for fresh fruit and 55% self-sufficient for fresh vegetables.
“The severity of the risks we face must not be underestimated,” the chair of the CCC’s adaptation committee Baroness Brown said. “These risks will not disappear as the world moves to net-zero; many of them are already locked in. By better understanding and preparing for the coming changes,the UK can prosper, protecting its people, its economy and its natural environment. A detailed, effective action plan that prepares the UK for climate change is now essential land needed urgently.”