Growing climate risks in the UK need urgent action

28 Jul 2016

With the relentless coverage of Brexit and Westminster turmoil in recent weeks, it’s easy to get lost in the high political drama. Some of the changes currently taking place to the UK’s political landscape are massive and fundamental, as are the risks and challenges they bring. Yet it is worth stepping back and reminding ourselves that one of the most serious immediate and long-term threats facing the UK has been there all along; it will only continue to grow in the future; and we must not lose sight of this fact, amid everything else. In the words of Amber Rudd during her previous role as Energy and Climate Change Secretary: “Climate change has not been downgraded... It remains one of the most serious long-term risks to our economic and national security.”

Now an important new report out this month by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change demonstrates starkly the multiple threats to the UK from climate change.

Severe and destructive climate impacts are unfolding worldwide; no country or community is immune to loss and damage. Last month, iconic images circulated of the Eiffel Tower surrounded by a deluge of floodwater as the Seine burst its banks, causing widespread disruption and forcing the Louvre to move its priceless artworks to safety. Analysis shows that the Paris floods were made almost twice as likely by climate change.

In India, temperatures reached a record 51°C earlier this year, causing thousands of deaths and water shortages and lost crops, which affected hundreds of millions of people.

Here in the UK, the Climate Change Act mandates the Government to undertake a national climate risk assessment every five years. The next one is due by January 2017, and this month’s report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is part of that process, synthesising evidence from 80 experts.

The CCC report shows that we are experiencing more extreme weather, hotter temperatures, sea-level rise of around 20cm, and more periods of severe and sustained rainfall – leading to devastating flooding, as we have seen hitting the headlines again and again. The Federation of Small Businesses previously found that two-thirds of small businesses have already been negatively affected by severe weather in recent years.

According to the CCC’s analysis, the 6 most significant problems for the UK are:

  • Flooding and coastal risks
  • High temperatures threatening health and economic productivity
  • Water shortages, affecting public supply, agriculture, industry and energy
  • Ecosystems and biodiversity loss
  • Food production and trade
  • New pests and diseases

Three key takeaways from the report for me are:

  1. There is a very real difference in how climate impacts will be experienced under different temperature scenarios. For example, ambitious approaches to adaptation could offset increases in expected annual flood damage at the national level if global warming is limited to 2°C. (Although, even in this scenario, it is important to note that local impacts will vary considerably and not all communities, properties and businesses will be able to be adequately protected.) However, warming of 4°C or more implies “inevitable increases in flood risk across all UK regions, even in the most ambitious adaptation scenarios considered.” This underscores the urgent need for countries to put into practice what they have promised in the Paris Climate Agreement: limiting warming to 2°C at the absolute maximum, whilst aiming for a lower target of 1.5°C to reduce the chance of devastation and the breaching of tipping points.
  1. Climate risks, both direct and indirect, are profoundly interconnected – and so must our response be, both within the UK (e.g. across government) and internationally. For example, as the CCC report states, “Incremental changes in the global climate and extreme weather events elsewhere in the world can affect the UK through global trade, international supply chains, and the movement of people and capital. They can also threaten shared natural resources and shift comparative advantage between nations, with implications for inter-state rivalry and the balance of power… The true magnitude of risks may be underestimated because each tends to be considered in isolation but in practice will act in combination.”
  1. We can only hope to tackle these risks, vulnerabilities and uncertainties if key decision-makers are equipped with high-quality information to understand them. The report itself notes that one of the biggest constraints to our country’s capacity to adapt will be our level of knowledge, skills and understanding. This, of course, is the whole point of the UK’s national climate risk exercise. And yet, if an advanced and wealthy country with a relatively strong legislative and regulatory architecture in place like the UK is considered “poorly prepared” – even for impacts at the lower end of the temperature spectrum – just imagine the challenges this poses for poorer countries with weaker institutional capacity. This is why it is absolutely critical that countries like the UK, and a whole range of other actors – including the private sector – step up to provide support for the world’s most vulnerable countries to undertake comprehensive climate risk assessments of their own, and adequate financial and technical resources to manage the climate risks they cannot cope with.

Climate risk insurance can and should be part of the solution. It has a particularly useful role to play in helping to institutionalise data-driven risk assessment in countries’ planning processes. But it is by no means the only or most important tool in the toolkit. This is immediately apparent when we look at the limitations to the UK’s “Flood Re” scheme, and the growing unaffordability of insurance premiums in some flood-prone regions of the UK, for example. Moreover, the question of who pays for insurance policies on behalf of vulnerable countries and people – who had no part in causing the climate chaos – still looms large.

These issues of tackling climate risk, assessment and contingency planning, and finance for loss & damage will be among the top priorities for UN climate negotiations at the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) in Marrakesh in November.

Stay tuned for more from RESULTS on this later in the year… 

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