This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard UK Country Managers Thomas Christensen and Gwen Wren
The first half of 2021 has spelled numerous climate-induced natural disasters in the United Kingdom, including extreme heat, rainstorms, and flooding. In June and July, the Meteorological Office (the country’s national weather service) issued an extreme heat advisory. Temperature records that were set 30 years ago in Northern Ireland and the British Isles were broken. At the same time, London suffered heavy rainfall and flooding where one month’s worth of rain came down in a few hours. This resulted in flooded subway stations and hospitals having to re-direct patients from emergency rooms.
Last year, the picture of anthropogenic climate change-induced weather destabilization was bleaker. A Royal Meteorological Society report characterized 2020 as the third warmest, fifth wettest, and eighth sunniest ever recorded. There were record-breaking numbers of heatwave deaths and there had never been as little snowfall across the country. Additionally, leaves from shrub and tree species appeared on average 10 days earlier than a 1999-2019 baseline.
The Outlook for the UK
According to the Greater London Authority, 17% of London is facing either high or medium risk of flooding, with more than 1 million Londoners living in a floodplain. London built a highly ambitious barrier project in 1982 to protect central London from tidal surges, however it is seen as increasingly unable to deter the direct impact of torrential rains.
At a national level, Research from the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA) highlights that over the next 75 years, if GHG emissions continue unabated, the UK climate is likely to become 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer and 50% drier in the summer, 40% wetter in the winter with 90% less snow, an early spring, and more extreme temperatures and rainfall events.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC), the independent non-departmental public body, formed under the Climate Change Act to advise the United Kingdom, published an Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk in June 2021. According to the report, the UK has the capacity and the resources to respond effectively to climate risks, but it has not yet done so, particularly for the following risk areas that require the most urgent attention in the next two years: risks to 1) viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats, 2) soil health and associated natural carbon stores from increased flooding and drought, 3) crops, livestock and commercial trees, 3) supply of foods and vital services from supply chain collapses, 4) people and the economy from power failures, and 5) human health from increased exposure to heat.
The CCC has warned that only five of 34 sectors show notable progress in the past two years, and no sector is yet scoring highly in lowering its level of risk. The worst sectors include: farmland and freshwater habitats and species, agricultural productivity, infrastructure to prevent surface water flooding, coastal erosion risk management, air quality, human pathogens, business opportunities from adaptation, supply chain interruptions, health impacts from heat and cold, and ports.
There is also a larger problem associated with the outdated nature of British buildings and infrastructure, which were initially erected at a time without any notion of extreme heat or flash flooding events. There is still no legal requirement to ensure homes, hospitals, schools or care homes are designed for the current or future climate.
Is the UK on the right course?
UK policy action, discourse and engagement across departments on adaptation and resiliency has grown consistently in the last decade, and in the last few years is demonstrating remarkable momentum. As a leading green financial hub, London is helping the world’s financial sector adopt TCFD (Taskforce on Climate-Related Disclosure) to embed climate-related risk portfolios in global assets and investments strategies. In November 2020, the Chancellor announced that these disclosures will be made mandatory across the economy by 2025. At home, the government aims to reduce communities’ risk to flooding, protect critical national infrastructure from extreme weather, and enhance the resilience of supply chains.
The CCC published a 2021 Progress Report on UK climate change adaptation submitted to Parliament, which highlights a few areas that are faring well based on the current set of government policies and plans: river and coastal flood alleviation, water demand for the built environment, energy sector adaptation, rail network development, public water supply and infrastructure, and strategic road network.
Following the London flash floods of July 2021, the UK government announced billions of pounds to be spent on resilient infrastructure, as well as incentives and regulations to prevent new homes from being built in flood-prone areas. For instance, to help address the growing stormwater drainage challenge, London has started construction of a giant tunnel, the Thames Tideway, which will cross the city, and store and move vast quantities of raw sewage and rainwater while also preventing millions of tonnes of untreated wastewater to invade the Thames River.
The UK government works with leading research bodies (UK Research and Innovation, Met Office and Natural Environment Research Council) on programs to capitalize on multi-disciplinary research and expertise to strengthen preparedness and resilience to climate change. In the last major budget unveiling by the government (March 2020), £5 billion were allocated for flood defence and £640m for a Nature for Climate Fund to plant more than 40 million trees and restore 35,000 hectares of peatland in England.
What should the UK do more of?
The CCC proposes banning rotational burning to protect peatland, integrate overheating risks in homes in building regulations, mandate the government to integrate adaptation monitoring within all infrastructure sectors, and implement public engagement programs.
In 2020, Ministers from the National Infrastructure Commission published warning signs concerning UK infrastructure, requesting that the government publish resilience standards every five years and implement stress tests for utilities and transport infrastructure. Additionally, the billions of pounds directed towards refurbishing homes lacks specific climate adaptation language and considerations, risking that the wrong type of insulation is installed, turning homes into heat traps in summer.
Current ability of the country to adapt to extreme weather conditions it faced in 2021:
Rating: ** Fair
Four Stars (****): Outstanding
Three stars (***): Good
Two stars (**): Fair
One star (*): Unprepared
Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency
Telephone: 03708 506 506
Address: National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
Rotherham, United Kingdom
Telephone from outside the UK (Mon-Fri, 8am-6pm GMT): +44 (0) 114 282 5312