The challenge of tackling climate change seems daunting, especially given how highly politicised a topic it has become. As certain politicians around the world still debate the causes and scientists groan in despair, the impacts of climate change become increasingly evident. It is arguably the most critical issue of our time and is inextricably linked to topics such as air quality, food and water security, human health, and biodiversity.
Last year was a year of 'weird weather'. The extreme cold temperatures brought by the 'Beast from the East' in March followed by the joint hottest summer on record put pressure on the UK's water supply and crop yields. It is likely that 2019 will be no different. As climate change continues to take hold, we can expect more extreme weather in the future, with hot summers becoming increasingly common, variable rainfall patterns, and significant sea level rise. There is a clear need to consider how climate change will affect the UK now and in the future, so that we can efficiently plan ahead and build resilience to climate change.
The UK was one of the most active EU Member States on climate change, with the Climate Change Act 2008 making the UK the first country in the world to have a legally binding long-term framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Act requires that a UK-wide climate change risk assessment (CCRA) must take place every five years, as well as a national adaptation programme (NAP), which must be reviewed every five years, setting out the government's objectives, proposals and policies for responding to the risks identified in the CCRA.
In addition, the UK has a robust set of climate projections providing quantitative evidence that the climate is changing, and warming will continue throughout this century. The 2018 UK Climate Projections (UKCP18) predicts hotter, drier summers and milder, wetter winters. All of this underpins the urgency of adapting to prepare for the impacts of the changing climate in the future.
However, climate change doesn't seem to be at the top of the agenda in the same way that more conventional and immediate stories do. As the Brexit deal continues to hang in the balance, the UK government's recent focus has seemingly shifted away from the topic of climate change, traditionally an area of high priority for the country.
To put it simply – we need to pick up the pace in order to address climate change. At an individual level, we can reduce our carbon footprints, switch to energy efficient appliances, insulate homes sufficiently and get involved in community projects such as local land management to build resilience to flood events. However, the UK also requires a fundamental policy shift to drive behavioural change.
With increased temperatures projected, English summers will be more on par with Mediterranean conditions. It will become necessary to adapt our national infrastructure, particularly focusing on maintaining our water supplies, updating housing to retain heat in the winter, switching to low or zero emission vehicles, and ensuring land management techniques continue to promote biodiversity and maintain food security. UK cities need to become more sustainable, and forthcoming infrastructure projects should ensure that they are climate resilient for the future.
Addressing the challenge of climate change needs a strategic and integrated approach and a clear political commitment to enable opportunities post-Brexit to be maximised. Relationships between the government, utilities, regulators, transport authorities, councils and developers need to be clarified to allow greater involvement in adaptation, resilience planning and resource management. The government has set the right direction with legislation such as the Climate Change Act; however, it urgently needs to encourage stakeholders to put words into action to build resilience.
Adaptation and resilience options often go hand-in-hand with carbon reduction measures; therefore switching to smart energy needs to accelerate and collaborative working is required to develop business cases that increase proactive as opposed to reactive behaviour. The reality is that we need a broad portfolio of solutions and interventions at all levels if the UK is to fully adapt. There should be a renewed focus on how we both reduce emissions and adapt to climate change in the UK - this has to be driven by comprehensive policy and legislation frameworks. To live and undertake business in a changing climate we need political action to catch up with a changing reality.