Natural environment and assets

Climate change is already having an impact on natural systems in the UK. Evidence of long-term shifts in the distribution and abundance of some terrestrial, freshwater and marine species due to higher temperatures is now discernible, despite complex interactions. These shifts can be expected to continue and become more widespread, with some species potentially benefiting, but others losing suitable climate space.

Climate change presents a substantial risk to the vital goods and services provided to people by the natural environment. The continued provision of key goods and services traditionally associated with the natural environment, including clean water, food, timber and fibre, are at risk from climate change. Other goods and services that are less well accounted for, although increasingly being recognised, are also at risk including pollination, carbon storage, natural flood alleviation and the cultural benefits provided by landscapes and wildlife.

The risks from climate change are heightened because the natural environment is already stressed. Historic and on-going pressures include pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, the continuing drainage of wetlands and the unsustainable use of soil, water and marine resources. These pressures constrain the natural resilience of species and ecosystems and their ability to adjust and adapt. There is therefore a risk that climate change will lead to further species declines and habitat degradation.

There are also potential opportunities that could arise from a modest level of climate change, through extended growing seasons and improved productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. These opportunities will only be realised, however, if limiting factors such as water availability, soil health and pests and diseases are managed.

 


Lead contributor: Iain Brown (University of York/Stockholm Environment Institute)

Contributing authors: Richard Bardgett (University of Manchester), Pam Berry (University of Oxford), Ian Crute (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board), James Morison (Forest Research), Mike Morecroft (Natural England), John Pinnegar (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), Tim Reeder (Environment Agency), Kairsty Topp (Scotland’s Rural College)

ASC contributor: David Thompson

This chapter at a glance

Risks and opportunities

More action needed

More action needed to reduce existing pressures, improve condition and size of habitats, restore degraded ecosystems, and deliver coherent ecological networks.

More action to factor climate change into conservation planning and site management.

More action needed

More action needed to deliver coherent ecological networks.

More action to factor climate change into conservation planning and site management.

Research priority

More research needed into developing integrated land-use planning based upon changing land suitability.

More research needed on the nature and scale of changing land suitability and its impacts.

More research needed into crop varieties, tree species and agricultural systems that are resilient to climate change.

More action needed

More action needed to reduce existing pressures on soils, increase uptake of soil conservation measures and restore degraded soils.

More action needed

More action needed to restore degraded carbon stores, particularly peatlands.

More research needed to account for climate change impacts on carbon stores in the UK GHG projections.

More action needed

More action needed to reduce pollution and over-abstraction and improve the ecological condition of water bodies.

Ensure decisions on use of water allow for necessary environmental flows and take account of climate change.

Research priority

More research needed on the scale of risk and effectiveness of adaptation measures.

More action needed

Deliver wider uptake of natural flood management in high-risk catchments especially where there are likely to be carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity benefits.
Implement catchment-scale planning for flood risk management.

Review potential for adverse flood risk outcomes from land management subsidies.

Sustain current action

Continue to implement surveillance and bio-security measures.

Continue current research efforts into the impact of climate change on long-term risks.

Develop cross-sectoral initiatives for risk assessment and contingency planning.

Sustain current action

Continue to build resilience of ecosystems to drought, flood and fire.
Continue current efforts to manage and respond to wildfires.

Monitor heat stress impacts on livestock.

Continue current efforts to manage impacts of high winds on forestry.

Sustain current action (watching brief in Northern Ireland & Scotland)

Continue action to manage salinity risks to freshwater habitats.

Monitor impacts on aquifers to assess whether risks are increasing.

More action needed

More action needed to deliver managed realignment of coastlines and create compensatory habitat.

Research priority

More research needed to better understand magnitude of risk to marine ecosystems and heritage.

Watching brief

Monitor impacts and ensure climate change is accounted for in future landscape character assessments.