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How can the UK adapt to climate change – and how much progress has been made?

The latest IPCC report will warn that time is running out for countries to adapt to climate change – so what plans does the UK have?

A new international report from the will sound yet another alarm on the pressing need to tackle rising temperatures and adapt to climate change across the globe.

Put together by 270 scientists from 67 countries, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will stress the urgent need for countries around the world to adapt to temperature rises which are now irreversible. 

“Adaptation” includes any measures to help communities and individuals adjust to changes brought about by climate change, including growing hardier crop species, building sea walls and planting trees. 

The government’s own climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), have repeatedly warned that progress on adaptation in the UK has been too slow.

In a recent report on climate change in the UK, the CCC said adaptation “remains the Cinderella of climate change, still sitting in rags by the stove: under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored.”

With the IPCC report warning adaptation is more important than ever, here’s how the UK could adapt to climate change – and how much progress has been made so far.

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How will climate change affect the UK? 

Like every other part of the world, the UK will be affected by higher temperatures as climate change accelerates.

The increase in global temperatures will bring warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers, with extreme weather more common at both ends of the scale.

This could result in a greater amount of flooding, problems growing crops and a higher frequency of wildfire events as well as a multitude of other impacts on infrastructure, communities and wildlife. 

Coastal towns and cities will also be affected by sea level rises, with coastal erosion likely to accelerate. 

The government has identified six “priority areas” where adaptation is most needed because of climate change, outlining what measures it will take to protect key infrastructure, people and the natural environment. 

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The natural environment

Climate change is threatening the natural environment in multiple ways, including the degradation of soil quality, a decline in biodiversity and damage to wildlife from extreme weather events.

This process is heightened by the fact that nature is already under pressure from pollution, habitat loss, non-native species and unsustainable agricultural practices. 

As temperatures rise, various plant and animal species are finding it much harder to adapt and survive. Given we rely on natural resources and a stable ecosystem for our survival, this presents a direct threat to human societies. 

The government has said it will help the natural environment adapt to climate change by:

  1. Protecting and improving our protected sites and other areas of important wildlife habitat
  1. Restore degraded ecosystems, for example by restoring ecological and hydrological functions and expand and connect high quality wildlife-rich habitat
  1. Reducing pressures from other sources such as water and air pollution and invasive non-native species

Policies to support this include protecting 30 per cent of land in the UK by 2030, introducing subsidies for farmers to provide environmental goods and implementing clean air zones in cities to make polluters pay for emissions. 

The CCC has warned, however, that the government’s plans on improving land management are particularly weak, saying in its 2021 assessment of climate risk that “there is no clear evidence that climate risks or opportunities for agriculture and forestry are being strategically planned for or managed”.

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Infrastructure

As the recent storms in the UK have shown, extreme weather events can have a severe impact on key infrastructure, cutting power to millions of homes and halting transport services. 

Climate change presents a threat to infrastructure near rivers and coasts particularly, with strong winds, higher rainfall and flooding all putting pressure on transport networks, power lines and other key services.

The government’s plans to protect key infrastructure largely revolve around improving monitoring and response times to extreme weather events. 

Various government bodies are identifying which infrastructure is most at risk and developing mitigation and maintenance plans accordingly – such as by protecting key assets with flood barriers. 

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People and the built environment

The CCC has identified flooding and high temperatures as posing the greatest risks to people and the built environment, impacting homes, health systems and individuals.

Hotter summers could lead to an increase in heat deaths, more people could lose their homes due to flooding and extreme weather could negatively impact local businesses. 

Flood risks to the NHS and social care assets are also likely to increase, putting pressure on the services dealing with the health implications of climate change

The government has said it will mitigate these risks in a multitude of ways.

This includes discouraging development in areas of high risk for flooding through planning guidelines, installing and maintaining flood barriers and ensuring that communities are better prepared for extreme weather events through alert systems and guidance.

Evidence from the CCC and other sources, however, suggest that building on flood plains continues, with poorer communities most likely to bear the brunt of subsequent damage. 

The CCC also warned that many homes in the UK are being built without adequate protections against rising temperatures, with over half a million homes built in the next five years at risk of overheating in the decades to come. 

Business and industry

Any disruption to wider society because of extreme weather or flooding will naturally impact businesses and industry, a key area the government has identified as in need of adaptation.

Any disruption in the supply chain can be particularly damaging to small businesses with thin margins. 

The government says it is helping retailers become more resilient to supply chain disruptions as well as encouraging the development of sustainable businesses to meet demands such as delivery of environmental goods (like tree planting) which will be needed in the future.

“Cultivating and acting on consumer environmental trends” is also one action proposed by the government to encourage consumers to make more responsible choices when purchasing goods and services. 

The CCC, however, has noted that the government has shown reluctance to nudge the public towards more environmentally-friendly products and behaviours such as plant-based diets or flying less.

Local government sectors

Though the impacts of climate change will be felt across the country, the impacts will all be local – and strong local leadership will play a key role in adapting and responding to climate change threats. 

The government has identified “insufficient local decision-making on how infrastructure funding is prioritised” as a concern, using the example of development permitted on areas where flood risk is high

The government has said it intends to work closely with all local stakeholders to support them in developing adaptation plans relevant to their area and community. 

One key concern, however, is that local authorities are currently under-resourced and don’t have the expertise necessary to plan adequately for the future.

Many councils have been forced to reduce their number of planning officers, for example. This means it’s not always possible for local authorities to ensure that developers have complied with rules and regulations around flooding or biodiversity. 

This runs the risk of creating further problems for the climate and environment later down the line.

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