UK’s new climate adaptation plan ‘too tentative’, experts warn

Image: Leighton Reservoir, Yorkshire, during 2022 droughts

The Third National Adaptation Programme, also called NAP 3, will be published by the Government later this week but has already been widely leaked following a leak to news outlets on Monday (17 July).

It sets out the Government’s five-year plan for dealing with changing weather patterns attributable to climate change; summers are getting drier and hotter and winters are getting wetter. More extreme weather is also becoming more common. Failure to prepare will mean new risks for infrastructure, defence and public health.

The UK’s official climate advisors stated earlier this year that there was a “striking lack of preparation” for coming climate risks under NAP 2. Of the 45 adaptation outcomes assessed, only five had the required policies in place to deliver success.

In the NAP 3 documents, the Government has stated that it understands these conclusions from the Climate Change Committee. It is also taking on board the latest global climate science. It states that failure to adapt will lead to physical climate risks costing up to 1.5% of GDP annually by 2045. In contrast, acting now can deliver up to £10 in net benefits for every £1 invested.

There is little in the way of new commitments in NAP3. Instead, the Government highlights work already underway in fields including flood planning; new homes standards designed to prevent overheating; financial sector reform and encouraging farmers to invest in nature-based solutions.

But one stand-out commitment is to the creation of a new, cross-governmental Climate Resilience Board. It will include representatives from the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A timeline is not stated for the launch of the Board. Committees hosted in Parliament will also continue to scrutinise the Government’s climate adaptation work.

The documents state a need to “identify where risks and opportunities can be addressed through coordinated ownership, policy drivers and funding”. This can help to prevent and address cascading risks – whereby a single hazard in one sector can have knock-on impacts more broadly.

Not on the Board, but mentioned in the report, are the departments responsible for housing, national security and health. On this latter point, there is a commitment to enhancing surveillance and monitoring for new climate-related health risks emerging across the world and the likelihood that they will reach the UK.

Additional training will be given to healthcare staff in the coming five years regarding the identification of – and treatment of – vector-borne diseases.

There is no confirmation that regulators including Ofgem will be given an official climate adaptation remit, however. This was recommended by the Climate Change Committee. Ofgem will this year get a net-zero remit covering climate mitigation, following much internal debate in the Conservative Party.

Early reaction

Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said the new plan is “a step-change in [the Government’s] approach to managing the risks of climate change, moving us from planning to action”.

Reacting to the NAP 3, Environmental Audit Committee Chair Philip Dunne MP said it will only be a success “if it succeeds in embedding action on climate adaptation and resilience right across Government”. While the new Board is welcomed by the Committee, the proof will be in action, not pledges.

Dunne also commented on the public health aspects of the Plan. He said: “We warned the Government that more needed to be done to prepare for heatwaves back in 2018. The UK’s highest-ever summer temperature record has been broken twice since that report.

“Yet the Government’s previous NAP failed to prepare the UK for these long-predicted changes to the climate that we are now witnessing.

“We must make sure our resilience planning and health safeguards are functioning effectively.  If the scale of heat-related deaths in recent years has told us anything, it’s that we must act urgently and decisively to adapt better to our changing weather patterns. This is needed both here at home in the UK, and especially in developing nations abroad in the frontline of climate impact.”

According to Government figures, England and Wales recorded 3,271 excess deaths during heatwaves in 2022.

Other prominent figures reacting to the report include:

The Aldersgate Group’s interim executive director Signe Norberg, who said: “Adapting to the impacts of climate change is an urgent necessity for all of society – for business, government and local communities. Failure to do so presents a significant risk to both the public and the economy.

“Some progress has been made in this announcement, particularly through the establishment of a Climate Resilience Board to oversee cross-cutting climate adaptation and resilience issues, but it will be imperative that we now focus on implementing adaptation measures across the whole economy. This should be supplemented by interim targets for adaptation so that there is a clear trajectory for Government’s progress on building resilience to the impacts of climate change.

“Finally, to fully prepare for the impact of climate change, it will be vital to accelerate policy progress on areas that are also vital to the UK’s ability to decarbonise by 2050, such as housing, power and land use.”

Scottish Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay, who said: “The UK government is utterly failing to grasp the real and immediate dangers posed by the climate emergency.

“This report should have been a turning point and a moment for Downing Street to take meaningful climate action, but instead they have published a list of commitments that don’t go anywhere near far enough while recycling announcements they have already made.

“In the past few weeks alone we have seen record temperatures across the world, massive wildfires around the planet, including here in Scotland, marine heatwaves and warnings from climate scientists that we need to act now.

“Yet, despite this disastrous backdrop the Tories are still committed to expanding oil and gas drilling and opening up even more of our North Sea to the highest bidder. Their approach has been a cataclysmic failure and is putting future generations at risk.”

The Institution of Civil Engineers’ director of policy Chris Richards, who said: “The UK needs to ramp up its adaptation measures. To do that, we need to understand what infrastructure is most at risk.

“Acting quickly would give us the opportunity to develop world-leading infrastructure that is fit for the future. Delay will only make the problems worse.

“While the government’s NAP3 makes some welcome commitments to examine adaptation on a systems-wide level, the overall lack of urgency in the plan is deeply concerning. It merely promises to review whether adaptation reporting should be mandatory by 2024/25, postponing the UK’s ability to determine what infrastructure is most at risk and what actions need to be taken.”

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