Action is needed to address the UK’s increasing vulnerability to climate change, as key sectors near their limit – 14 July 2011

The UK is coping now, but it is near its limits in some key sectors and could be pushed over the edge by climate change. But by preparing now, the UK can reduce the adverse effects of climate change and take advantage of opportunities, according to a new report published today by the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC).

In the water sector for example, while only 8% of resource zones in England are currently at risk of a supply shortfall in a severe drought, this could increase to around 45% by 2035 without additional investment.

The UK’s vulnerability to climate change is potentially increasing as a result of patterns of building development in some areas and demographic trends.

The ASC found:

  • In almost all of the nine local authorities studied*, development in the floodplain had increased, and four of them the rate of development was higher than across the locality as a whole.
  • Three of the four coastal authorities studied* saw an increase in development in areas of eroding coastline, and in two of them, the rate of development on unprotected coastline was higher than across the authority as a whole.
  • Five of the six urban authorities studied* had recently increased the area of land paved over – hard surfacing exacerbates surface water flooding risk and the urban heat island effect*.
  • This increase in vulnerability has been offset at least to some degree by increased investment in flood defences and the greater use of adaptation measures in new homes built.

Three of the largest risks to the UK identified by the Government’s National Risk Register are weather related, namely coastal flooding, inland flooding and severe weather. The impacts of climate change are likely to be borne disproportionately in some locations e.g. low-lying coastal areas and by some groups e.g. the elderly. Older people are more at risk of health impacts linked to climate change, including heat stress and respiratory illness.

Despite a growing awareness of adaptation on the part of Government, some businesses and local authorities, the ASC found that climate risks are still not being factored robustly enough into long-term decision-making on land-use planning and water infrastructure.

In this report, the ASC sets out a series of actions, which if implemented more widely could reduce the costs of climate change and save people money.

These positive opportunities include:

  • Water efficiency – package of end-of-life upgrades to taps, showers and toilets to improve water efficiency which could be installed at no additional cost. If implemented in full these could reduce water use by households by around 1/3.
  • Flood protection – package of measures to reduce damages from flooding e.g. air-brick covers, door-guards and drainage bungs.
  • Summer cooling – investing in low-cost measures to reduce overheating in buildings including energy-efficient appliances to reduce waste heat, and increased window shading, would reduce the need to invest in costly air-conditioning.

New policy approaches may be required to encourage people to take up these opportunities. These could include:

  • Wider use of water meters, alongside improved information from Government agencies and regulators, to provide consumers with an incentive to change their behaviour and save water.
  • Tighter regulations on new housing to improve their adaptability.

Lord John Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee said:

“The results in this report demonstrate how a sharper focus on the UK’s current vulnerability to climate can improve the way we prepare for climate change. By taking steps to manage this vulnerability, local communities, businesses and households can save money today and reduce the costs of climate change in the future The Committee has outlined a number of opportunities to ensure that we are adequately prepared and our economy is made more resilient. The Government should address these in its forthcoming national adaptation plan”.

The recommendations set out to Government today were published in the ASC’s second progress report, ‘Adapting to climate change in the UK: measuring progress