More heatwaves are coming – but UK government isn’t ready for them

Regardless of the degree to which future greenhouse gas emissions are limited, changes in the UK’s climate are locked in for the next few decades. Due to lag in the climate system, a sea level rise of 1m by 2100 is plausible, and we can expect more volatile extremes in both seasonal temperatures and rainfall. This leaves UK communities and businesses facing substantial risks, which are laid out in the government’s five-yearly Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA).

Of these, the most severe are those from flooding and coastal erosion. In 2014, coastal and inland flooding took the lives of 17 people, along with a key section of railway line connecting the west of England. Just two years ago, flash flooding in the middle of June submerged basement flats in London and sent cars floating down streets. In the last 10 years, such events have become noticeably more frequent, severe, and widespread. Even if we limit warming to 2C, the number of people at risk of flooding is set to rise from 1.8 million to 2.6 million by 2050. Coastal infrastructure is also under serious threat from increases in the height of storm surges brought by rising sea levels.

At the other extreme, longer and stronger heatwaves are on the horizon, for which British homes and public infrastructure were not designed. This places pressures on water availability, productivity, and health. In 2010, five million staff days were lost due to overheating, at an economic cost of £770m. In 2013, sustained hot weather claimed 760 lives in nine days, and the number of heat-related deaths in the UK is projected to increase by 250% by the 2050s. This year’s ongoing heatwave, itself following a fatal cold snap, has melted roads and brought drought, raising concerns that wheat and barley harvests will fail.

Heatwaves like the one northern Europe is currently experiencing are now twice as likely thanks to human-induced climate change. This means that overheating buildings, infrastructure collapses, water scarcity, and crop failures are all projected to become more common without urgent action. Topsoil loss has also been accelerated by both heatwaves and heavy rainfall, leaving the future of UK farming precarious – at current rates, the country has less than 100 harvests left.

Following each CCRA, the Government publishes its National Adaptation Programme, a blueprint guiding government action to address the increasing risks facing the country. Its second iteration, published in July, contains promising ambition to improve soil health and shift towards sustainable farming practices.  Investment in flood and coastal defence assets continues its upward trend, and this latest programme aims to put right the current absence of strategy to combat surface water flooding from increasingly heavy rainfall. The document also outlines encouraging plans to develop a set of green infrastructure standards for new construction by 2023, and to ensure that all hospitals – unable to open windows during hot weather – have thermal monitoring in place.

However, after 10 years of national adaptation efforts, the government is still only at the research stage in minimising overheating in homes and other public buildings. According to the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee report, ‘essential heatwave adaptation measures are not being delivered’, either at local or national levels. There isn’t even yet a commonly accepted definition of a heatwave in the UK, and in the absence of clear information, the public tend only to see heatwave alerts as ‘barbecue alerts’.

heatwave
Europe is still far hotter than usual for this time of year. Climate Reanalyzer, University of Maine

On flooding, there is a key gap in plans to replace the withdrawal of ‘Flood Re’, a scheme that helps those living in high-risk areas to buy affordable home insurance. And aside from the urgent risks identified above, there are many less substantial but still urgent risks identified in the CCRA that are not addressed at all in the programme. Perhaps most worryingly, there are no adequate plans to rectify the removal of funding to support climate change adaptation by local authorities, which have a crucial role to play in rolling out resilience measures quickly.

The latest National Adaptation Programme isn’t yet up to scratch. Ignoring urgent risks makes it a bit-part plan at best, and there is no clear sense of the government’s priorities, other than that heatwave adaptation is clearly not among them. It doesn’t set measurable success criteria with timescales, nor does it properly address how actions are to be monitored and evaluated. Given the government’s recent track record of rhetoric without substance, we must keep a watchful eye on how plans translate into action. However, this iteration does make some progress on the first, and provides promise that positive action to address the country’s most urgent risks might be delivered. The Committee on Climate Change is due to comprehensively assess this NAP next year, and the government would do well to heed its advice. We, the public, need to keep the pressure on to make sure that they do.

 

Take Action

Write to Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the minister responsible for climate adaptation policy, to urge him to rectify the NAP’s shortcomings, and heed the Committee on Climate Change’s future advice. A template is available below:

 

Dear Lord Gardiner of Kimble,

The latest National Adaptation Programme makes encouraging progress in dealing with risks from flooding and soil health. However, with this European heatwave still going strong, tangible adaptation measures are still non-existent. A number of other urgent risks outlined in the Committee on Climate Change’s Evidence Report on Climate Change Risks are not even addressed, and the programme lacks meaningful success criteria, timescales, or monitoring tools to effectively implement and assess planned actions. I urge you to rectify these shortcomings, and to work closely with the CCC in the coming months to make full use of its upcoming assessment of the NAP.

Yours sincerely,

 

This article was published in partnership with UK Youth Climate Coalition and Climate Scorecard.

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