People get ready

By Gareth Renowden 18/09/2010

Britain needs to step up its efforts to prepare for unavoidable climate change, according to How well prepared is the UK for climate change? the first report of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change — the body established by the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act to advise government on all aspects of climate-related policy. Committee chairman Lord John Krebs summarises the thrust of the report like this:

In brief, our headline finding is that whilst the UK has started to build capacity for adaptation through advice and information to a range of public and private sector organisations, there is little evidence that this is translating into tangible action on the ground in a systematic way.

The report identifies five key areas in which early action is required.

From the executive summary:

  1. Taking a strategic approach to land use planning — for example to (i) ensure that new buildings and infrastructure are sited in areas that minimise exposure to flood risk, do not increase flood risk to others, and do not create a legacy of flood defence or water supply costs; (ii) manage competing pressures on land — urban, natural and agricultural — in response to a changing climate; and (iii) enhance green space where effective in the design of towns and cities to help manage surface water drainage and cope with rising temperatures and heatwaves.
  2. Providing national infrastructure (energy, water, transport, waste and communications) — for example to ensure it can cope with rising temperatures; it is resilient to potential increases in certain extreme weather events, such as storms, floods and droughts; and it takes account of changing patterns of consumer demand in areas such as energy and water use, travel and consumption.
  3. Designing and renovating buildings — for example to ensure they can cope with rising temperatures and floods and minimise water use through appropriate use of construction materials and through better design.
  4. Managing natural resources sustainably — for example by using water more efficiently; improving and extending ecological networks so that species can adapt and move as the climate changes; and making space for water along rivers and the coast.
  5. Effective emergency planning — for example by making better use of probabilistic weather forecasts to anticipate extreme weather events more effectively; creating plans that reduce impact on and ensure continuation of care for the most vulnerable groups in society during heatwaves and floods; and developing business continuity plans based on high-quality climate risk information so that businesses can cope better with disruptions to their supply chains during floods and damage to assets from severe weather.

The report’s emphasis on flooding as a major climate change impact is understandable, given the UK’s recent history. Coping with increased flooding is a key challenge for the country given the amount of development that has taken place on vulnerable floodplains. If you are at all interested in how we might plan to adapt to climate change — both the unavoidable change, the climate commitment — and the further changes we hope to avoid by mitigating carbon emissions, then this report is well worth reading. Many of the points it makes are relevant in the New Zealand context. One thing that’s worth picking out (from section 2.4, p25):

Adaptation is context specific. Unlike mitigation, where every unit of carbon has the same cost regardless of where it is emitted, the ’optimal’ adaptation response is context specific, depending on who is adapting, where in the country, and how they weigh up other factors in their decisions. This makes it difficult to determine in advance what successful adaptation will look like.

And there’s the rub. There’s plenty of politics in deciding how to cut carbon emissions — there’s a whole lot more in coping with unavoidable climate change. At least Britain has a body charged with looking at the big picture and advising government — something that’s sadly lacking in New Zealand. [See also BBC, Guardian]

[Al Green]