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Britain 'not prepared' for climate threats, from heat to food shortages

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 June 2021 18:54 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A warning sign is seen a distance from the water's edge at drought-hit Bewl Reservoir near Lamberhurst in south-east England, April 5, 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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Even as the leaders ramp up efforts to achieve the UK's net-zero emissions goal, they are falling further behind on plans to adapt to coming threats, analysts say

* Push for net-zero emissions overlooks adaptation needs

* Growing threats range from extreme heat to coastal erosion

* Future costs will rise substantially without policy change

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, June 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From increasingly sweltering homes and worsening wildfires to empty supermarket shelves, Britain is failing to prepare for many of the likely impacts of a hotter planet, the country's Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned on Wednesday.

Even as leaders ramp up efforts to achieve the UK's net-zero emissions goal, Britain is falling ever-further behind on plans to adapt to threats including erosion-hit coastal railways and too-hot schools, the independent advisory group said.

"Adaptation remains the Cinderella of climate change. It's under-funded and often overlooked," said Julia King, chair of adaptation for the CCC and a member of the House of Lords.

"We're not prepared in the UK yet for unprecedented events that could occur now," she told an online discussion as the group released its third report on climate risks, the first in five years.

It looked at the expected impacts of planetary heating of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times - the less-ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement - as well as the possibility of 4C of warming if efforts to ramp up global emissions cuts falter.

Those impacts include everything from worsening food security, as crops both grown in and imported to Britain fail, to increasingly deadly and damaging heatwaves, floods, droughts and sea level rise that will hit families and businesses.

"Climate risks will ultimately affect every sector of our economy and our society," warned Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England and a U.N. special envoy for climate action and finance, calling many of the risks "unprecedented".

HEAT-RELATED DEATHS

The threats have risen substantially in five years, Carney said, as global emissions continue to rise and leaders lag in preparing for a warmer world.

Of 61 threats identified in the report, only seven are manageable at current levels of adaptation, said Richard Betts, the report's technical lead and head of climate impacts research at the Met Office Hadley Centre.

Britain has, for instance, made good progress in planning for increased risks of both floods and water scarcity through measures like Flood Re, which shares the cost of flood insurance among homes across the country.

But in a climate known for cool and rainy conditions, preparing for the possibility of regular 40C summer heat has been harder, even as heat records are broken, most recently in 2019.

"How do we expect the unexpected?" Betts asked, noting a hotter Britain would also likely see worsening summer wildfires. "It's about preparing for these things we're not yet used to."

Last summer, August heatwaves, with temperatures 10C above average, led to 2,500 heat-related deaths in England, most in homes, care homes and hospitals, said Kathryn Brown, head of adaptation for the CCC and a climate policy expert.

"That is probably going to be a normal summer by 2050," she said, with the report noting heat-related deaths could triple by mid-century.

But worsening heat risks have yet to bring changes in building standards, to ensure homes are as well-ventilated and equipped to deal with summer heat as they are insulated to cope with winter cold, Betts said.

Since the CCC's last risk assessment, which warned about growing heat risks, a half million new homes have been built in Britain with no design changes or systems to deal with the worsening threat, he said.

That is likely to saddle owners with hefty costs to retrofit them in the future, the experts said.

"We've been really frustrated that our advice over the last 10 years hasn't had the impact it should," King noted.

POLICY CHANGES?

But opportunities to influence policy are coming up, from an environment bill now in the House of Lords to an upcoming new planning bill, she said.

Individual local councils have also made significant progress preparing for threats, the CCC noted, including Glasgow's "Climate Ready Clyde" initiative, which looks in part at flooding risks along the city's River Clyde.

But many of the hundreds of UK communities that have declared "climate emergencies" have focused more on reducing emissions - admittedly crucial to cutting climate risks - than on adaptation, said Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC.

"Of course we need to be acting on net zero (but) we also need to do this stuff on adaptation," he said.

Brown noted that part of the difficulty in spurring greater action to adapt is that "it can be very hard to deal with future uncertainty in policy", particularly when the extent and timing of threats remain unclear.

Politicians in office now also are unlikely to get credit for avoiding future disasters - another disincentive.

But failing to prepare is likely to be far more costly in years to come, in terms of cash, lives and general disruption, the experts said.

"We have the capacity, we have the resources to act on these climate change risks more effectively - and yet we don't," Stark noted. "We are currently locking in vulnerability."

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(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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