Climate Change is Causing an Increase in Summer Heatwaves, Wildfires, Storms, and Flooding in the UK

The Meteorological Office, also known as the Met Office, is the United Kingdom’s national weather service. The Met Office predicts that in 50 years, by 2070, winter will be 1 to 4.5 °C warmer and up to 30% wetter. Summer will be 1 to 6 °C warmer and up to 60% drier. In addition, heavy rain is more likely. Since 2002, the UK has experienced all ten of its warmest years on record. As a result of climate change, heat waves like 2018, are now 30 times more likely and are expected to occur every other year by 2050.

A Greenpeace Report suggests that summer heat waves, however welcome they may appear, are a key effect of climate change in the UK. They are even causing an increase in the number of wildfires across the country. Storms and flooding are becoming more severe and frequent, causing people to lose their homes and lives. More storms, combined with rising sea levels, are gradually eroding coastlines throughout the British Isles.

Heatwaves exceeding 30 ⁰C are considered extreme in the UK. On July 25, 2019, a record high of 38.7 ⁰C was recorded in Cambridge, and the longest stretch of extreme heatwave temperatures was recorded in August 2020. Extreme heat can be dangerous to those with heart and lung conditions. Heatwaves in cities can also increase toxic air pollution, causing breathing difficulties and developmental issues in children. Since 2018, over 4000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England. Another climate catastrophe threatening the UK catalyzed by climate change is the frequent record-breaking winter floods. Lives have been lost in these floods, and they cause untold damage to homes and livelihoods year after year. Storms Dennis, Ciara, and Jorge in February 2020 flooded thousands of homes and disrupted power to many more.

Wildfires are also on the rise in the UK. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, the UK had 79 fires larger than 25 hectares in 2018, and a massive 137 fires in 2019 alone, up from less than 100 fires across the country from 2011 to 2017. In June 2018, temperatures reached over 30 ⁰C, resulting in large fires across the country. Furthermore, sea level rise and storm surges exacerbated by climate change are causing flooding and coastal erosion. As a result, cities, and coastlines in parts of the UK are at risk of being completely submerged. While villages or towns like Fairbourne in Wales are so close to the sea that the entire village may need to be relocated soon.  Regions like Devon and Cornwall in Norfolk are facing severe coastal erosion, and storms have caused the collapse of coastal railway lines. Finally, changing weather can cause significant changes in ecosystems, threatening the habitats of many indigenous species in the UK and potentially leading to extinction. Warming seas, for example, will drive seabirds, puffins, white-beaked dolphins, cod, and Atlantic salmon away or make reproduction more difficult, disrupting the food chain and exacerbating issues like overfishing.

According to research done by the Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change and the Environment, the total cost of climate change damages to the UK is projected to rise from 1.1% of GDP presently to 3.3% by 2050 and 7.4% by 2100 under current policies. The greatest single threat to the UK economy from climate change is a catastrophic disruption to the global economic system (worth 4.1% of GDP). Agriculture is one of the sectors in the UK that is expected to be most affected by climate change. The loss of arable land as regions dry out is expected to cut the UK’s total GDP contribution in half by 2100.

The Climate Change Act of 2008 made the United Kingdom the first country in the world to create a legally binding national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The act’s goal was to cut national emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. The 80% target was revised in 2019 to achieve a net zero-an effective 100% reduction by 2050. The Climate Change Act put in place a policy framework to promote adaptation action in the UK consisting of:

  • The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) is a five-yearly assessment of the major risks and opportunities of climate change to the UK. The most recent evidence report published in 2016 outlined risks to the UK in six key areas: flooding, heat, drought, natural capital risks, food, and pests.
  • The National Adaptation Programme (NAP), which is produced every five years, is the UK Government’s strategy for addressing the main risks and opportunities identified in the risk assessment for England. The most recent programme, published in 2018, focuses on three key areas: raising awareness of the need for climate change adaptation, improving the evidence base, and taking timely action to increase resilience to the major risk groups identified in the most recent CCRA.
  • The devolved administrations also have their own adaptation programmes, such as the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 for Scotland.

 The UK government launched a new £5 million research programme to help the UK adapt and become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. The research will inform the UK’s strategy to prepare for and protect against the impacts of climate change, such as heatwaves, flooding, and extreme storms. The government’s £2.6 billion six-year capital investment programme to reduce flood and coastal erosion risk will provide over £30 billion in economic benefits. Further, the second National Action Plan (NAP) of the government outlined its approach to ‘Delivery of Health and Social Care Services’. It cited the Heatwave Plan and Cold Weather Plan for England as examples of climate change-related health preparations. In addition, other government adaptation efforts, such as the Clean Air Strategy 2019 and investments to make cycling and walking safer, are also underway.

In terms of criticism, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent body, criticised both the “policy ambition and implementation” of the Government’s NAP in its 2019 Progress Report to Parliament. According to the CCC, “little progress” has been made in planning for and addressing climate change risk in key areas, such as illness and deaths related to heat and cold. It concluded that “longer-term strategies,” particularly for adapting existing buildings and care facilities, were required.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard United Kingdom Country Manager Prastuti Saikia


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