Are we doing enough to adapt to climate change?

How can we measure how well countries are adapting to the impacts of climate change? This is a question that is being asked both in the UK and around the world, and was one of the hot topics at this month’s European Climate Change Adaptation (ECCA) conference in Copenhagen.

Unlike measuring a country’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is technically challenging but entirely possible, measuring progress on adaptation is much less clear cut. Nonetheless, in the UK this is a task that falls to the Committee on Climate Change, and in recent years we’ve made some real strides forward.

Still, it’s not easy. Even before we can measure anything, there are a number of obstacles to overcome. First is the degree of uncertainty about the future climate – we do not know exactly how much warmer, wetter, drier or stormier specific parts of the UK might get in the years ahead.

What we do have are a range of climate projections.  At one extreme they suggest parts of the country could experience major climatic changes in the long-term that would require major upheavals, for example relocating towns or investing in new infrastructure. At the other extreme, other projections suggest that the impacts may not be anywhere near as significant. Accounting for changes in population, demographics, technology, global trade and other socio-economic factors add further uncertainty to understanding the size of risks in the future.

So we have no real way of knowing precisely how much we need to adapt, how much it will cost, or by when we need to do it. This makes it inherently difficult to assess how much change is necessary now and what progress is being made towards it.

Where to start? Historic greenhouse gas emissions have already ‘locked-in’ a certain amount of climate change, and even if we successfully limit the global temperature rise to no more than 2°C, the world can still expect to see significant impacts.

At a global level, one approach is to simply count the number of adaptation plans and strategies in place. One study presented at the ECCA conference identified over 4,000 discrete adaptation plans and initiatives across 117 countries. In Europe, 21 out of 33 countries have produced national adaptation plans or strategies, including the UK which set out its plan in 2013.

It’s also possible to assess whether key organisations in a country have adaptation plans, or are at least thinking about long-term climate change risks. In the UK, almost all infrastructure providers and utility companies produced adaptation plans in 2010-2011 and many are publishing updates in 2015. Local authorities are the other key players. A survey of 90 local councils in England carried out by the Committee on Climate Change this year found that around half have a specific adaptation plan and most are considering the impacts of climate change over the long-term in areas like land-use planning, public health and flood risk management.

Measuring progress in this way is informative, but has its limitations. It is easy to write a plan, or to name-check adaptation in existing plans, but there is often no way of knowing whether those plans are being implemented or whether they are effective in reducing vulnerability on the ground.

That’s why the Committee has gone one step further. As part of our upcoming assessment of the UK’s progress on adapting to climate change, due out at the end of June, we’re also assessing outcomes with indicators.  The indicators are designed to tell us what is actually happening to vulnerability to climate change impacts on the ground.

In this way we’re able to make a robust and balanced assessment as to whether progress is being made to reduce the UK’s vulnerability. For example, is new development appropriately designed to be resilient to flooding, include measures to soak up excess rainwater and water-efficient? If so, then we are likely to be making progress to reduce, or at least not increase, vulnerability to the risks of more severe flooding and drought in the future.

On the other hand, if we find that inappropriate development is going ahead in areas of high flood risk, and that we are paving-over front gardens with hard surfacing, and that new homes are not routinely fitted with water meters, then the UK is almost certainly increasing its vulnerability to climate risks.

To support this analysis the Committee has built up and tested a set of unique indicators across a wide range of themes including the built environment, infrastructure, health, business and the natural environment. This means there is enough evidence to come up with an evaluation of where progress is being made, and where more action is required.

It’s not entirely quantitative, as it only gives an indication of progress where data is available and relies on expert judgment, but it’s about as robust as it can be given the wide range of uncertainties we face. And based on the reception we received in Copenhagen last week, when it comes to measuring adaptation, it’s pretty clear the UK is ahead of the curve.