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Climate change: the future of UK cities

Cities have a crucial role to play if the UK is to take effective action on climate change. Emissions from cities must fall significantly, and our urban spaces must prepare for the changes that climate change will bring. Gemma Holmes of the Adaptation Sub-Committee secretariat outlines the challenges.

In England, over 80% of people live in urban areas. Our cities are vital centres for business, transport links, culture and jobs. However, greenhouse gas emissions from UK cities need to fall considerably if we are to hit our legally binding climate change targets. In addition, our cities will need to adapt in many ways to the increasingly apparent impacts of climate change, such as higher average temperatures, increased flooding and more extreme weather. Research by the Office for National Statistics indicates that over the next decade, the number of people living in our cities is expected to grow further, adding to pressures on vital resources such as green spaces, water, infrastructure and electricity.

The good news is UK cities are well placed to face these challenges. The devolution of powers to major city regions and elected mayors, combined with new working partnerships between local authorities, mean cities can take more of a lead in reducing their emissions and improving their resilience to climate change impacts. Indeed, a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research called  Net Zero North argues that government should devolve carbon budgets to regions. It is one of many reports exploring a growing potential for cities to tackle climate change. The reports conclude that cities can play a vital role by setting priorities, coordinating action and leading the conversation with residents, businesses, services and infrastructure providers.


Understanding the risks

The risks to cities from climate change are becoming increasingly well understood. The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report published by the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) in 2016 identified six priority areas for the government’s next UK National Adaptation Programme – the programme that drives action on preparing for climate change. The most urgent of these risks to UK cities are from flooding, heat, and extreme weather impacts on infrastructure. In some areas of the UK there is also a risk of water demand exceeding supply by 2030. Following on from this, the ASC’s latest Progress Report to Parliament in July 2017 set out to what extent the UK is preparing for climate change. It concluded that communities are becoming increasingly vulnerable and identified areas where current action is insufficient to manage the risk to cities:

  • Flooding. Sewer networks lack sufficient capacity to cope with the heavier rainfall that climate change is expected to bring, and new building developments are adding to this risk by increasing the flow of water into the sewerage system. ‘Green’ Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS), which can deliver a range of benefits and be adapted to cope with future changes, can help tackle the issue. However, a recent study by CIWEM found little confidence that high quality SuDS are being built in the majority of new developments. The number of households that could benefit from property-level flood resilience (such as flood gates and airbrick covers), but that it may not be cost-effective to protect with hard flood defences, is expected to increase from around 150,000 to 220,000 by 2040. However, the government’s five-year investment plan includes proposals to protect just 500 per year – meaning the number of vulnerable properties is increasing five times faster than measures are being fitted.
  • Overheating. This is more likely to occur in cities due to the urban heat island effect. Around 2,000 heat-related deaths occur each year in the UK and this is projected to increase to 7,000 by 2050 as average temperatures rise with climate change.[1] Despite the growing risk, there are still no polices in place to limit the health and wellbeing impacts caused by overheating in buildings. Urban greenspace such as parks and forests can help to reduce heat, but the total area of urban greenspace declined by 7% between 2001 and 2011, and has remained fairly static since then. To increase resilience to climate change as well as provide many co-benefits to health and biodiversity, the UK’s urban greenspace needs to increase.
  • Digital infrastructure. We all rely heavily on digital and information communications technology whether for personal or business use, or for the operation of services. Surprisingly, there is no national plan from industry or government to address climate change risks in the digital or ICT sectors – even though major flooding events in Leeds and York in 2015 demonstrated the damage that can be done to digital infrastructure when things go wrong.


Looking forward

Long-term planning for climate change at the city level is at risk of stalling because:

  • Resources are being squeezed due to pressures on local budgets, although the understanding of climate change amongst local government staff has improved in recent years.
  • Resilience projects usually focus on flood risk management, and tend to address immediate issues i.e. vulnerabilities caused by current severe weather.
  • There is evidence that climate change has been de-prioritised in the land-use planning system. This is a problem because local authority land-use planning and building controls are crucial in shaping local action to prepare for climate change and promote policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not all bad news however. There are many examples of UK cities pressing ahead with action on climate change, with impressive plans and strategies for flood risk management, sustainable transport, water efficiency, green infrastructure, energy efficiency and use of low-carbon energy. Schemes such as Core cities, 100 Resilient Cities, UK100, London Environment Strategy and Leeds Climate Commission are just a few examples of those who are pushing the envelope.

The Committee on Climate Change has a role to play here too. Along with the Adaptation Sub-Committee, we are working to define long-term climate change outcomes for cities, to ensure our urban centres can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and manage climate change impacts. Not only will this help the UK to meet its national climate targets – it will also ensure our cities are healthier and more sustainable places to live.

Our analysis will form the basis of an upcoming new report on UK cities, covering buildings, infrastructure, business and urban planning. We’re seeking wide input for this report, so if you have views or experience to share, keep an eye out for our call for evidence.

With timely action, the UK can ensure its cities are fit for the future.


[1] Taking account of population growth. Deaths are projected to be 5,000 per year in 2050 with no population growth.