Scientists have identified eight areas where the UK must take urgent action to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Experts warned in a landmark report that the country is failing to keep pace with the impacts of a warming planet and the risks that the UK is already facing – including heat-related deaths, food supply problems and threats to British wildlife’s habitats.
The independent study looked at a host of potential environmental risks and opportunities to all aspects of life in the UK. It then warned that the cost of its proposed solutions will only grow if they are not implemented now.
The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) report co-author Dr Pam Berry told Metro.co.uk that key risks involved the UK’s natural environment, agriculture and forestry, food and power supply and human health.
She said: ‘These risks are often inter-related, so need to be addressed together. ‘One way to do this is through nature-based solutions which protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems whilst benefiting human well-being and biodiversity.
‘In urban environments, increasing green spaces provides habitats for species and opportunities for species to move, as well as decreasing temperatures.’
Since the CCC’s last assessment five years ago, over 570,000 new homes have been built that are not resilient to future high temperatures – and since 2018 over 4,000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England.
The report also lays out a number of possible solutions.
The eight areas identified as needing attention within two years ‘at the latest’ and solutions highlighted in the report:
Risks to land and freshwater habitats and species Action is needed to reduce pollution and create suitable habitats for species to continue to live. Shading rivers using trees, helping wildlife to move, for example with ‘fish passes’, and improving the resilience of habitat with mixed planting and removing material that risks wildfires can help.
Risks to soil health from increased flooding and drought More soil-friendly farming practices need to be brought in, with the post-Brexit overhaul of environmental laws, including new payments to farmers to provide public goods, providing an opportunity to encourage soil conservation.
Risks to natural carbon stores such as woods and peatlands Hotter, drier conditions reduce the functioning of peatlands and forests and threaten their existence, while ‘blue carbon’ stores such as saltmarsh and kelp forests are at risk from warming seas and the loss of coastal habitat. These areas need protecting, with the right type of trees being planted in the right places and degraded peatlands restored.
Risks to crops, livestock and commercial trees By using new varieties of crops and trees which are more resilient this risk can be mitigated the report says. It adds that changes to land management, including better technology for managing water and supplying nutrients as well as improving soil conservation, is also needed.
Risks to supply of food, goods and vital services due to climate-related collapse of supply chains and distribution networks Better information is needed for those in the industry, while diversifying supply chain risks, and new technology and infrastructure, will also be important.
Risks to people and the economy from power system failures More needs to be done to stop flooding, water shortages, wildfire, high temperatures, rising seas and increases in storms hitting parts of the power supply system, and damaging multiple areas of the economy. Continuing to invest in electricity generation and ensuring the power system is resilient will be crucial.
Risks to human health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in homes and buildings Efforts to stop overheating in buildings need to ramped up dramatically, with calls for the updating of building regulations and policies to ensure new homes are built with cooling measures as well as energy efficiency.
Multiple risks to the UK from climate change impacts abroad Overseas aid programmes should target underlying vulnerabilities, not just respond to disasters, the report say. It adds that there should be greater funding for adaptation as part of efforts to help poorer countries tackle climate change.
Away from adaptations, scientists have long been calling for structural changes to target the cause of climate change.
Dr Berry, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, added: ‘First and foremost we need to reduce our energy demand, but also to protect or enhance our natural carbon stores, again through protecting and restoring our carbon-rich ecosystems, including woodlands, peatlands, wetlands and marine ecosystems, such as seagrass and kelp.’
UK-wide, nearly 60% of the risks and opportunities assessed were given the highest urgency score.
The report stressed the ‘strong benefits’ of taking action now, identifying a range of steps that would benefit the country in five years if widely implemented.
Crucial among them are better building design and retrofitting, habitat creation and improved access to information on the environment.
But the authors warned that the benefits the UK could enjoy from climate change do not offset the risks and need quick action to realise.
A host of scientists and the World Wildlife Fund backed the report’s findings and told Metro.co.uk.
Climate system science professor Nigel Arnell, from Reading University’s department of meteorology, University of Reading, said the report painted ‘a rather depressing picture of how well prepared we are in the UK for climate change’.
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He said: ‘Whilst there are some positive areas – particularly regarding flooding and water scarcity where much has been done – clearly a lot more needs to be done to cope with the increasing risks from climate change.’
Experts also heavily criticised government action so far, saying it had not previously heeded CCC advice, ahead of the crucial COP26 environmental summit in Glasgow later this year.
Dr Bablu Sinha, a senior scientist and lead for the Climate and Uncertainty group at the National Oceanography Centre, said: ‘The key message is that reducing emissions is a very good thing, but we will also need to adapt to the changes in climate that have already occurred and the changes that will keep happening until the world reaches net zero emissions.
‘Ultimately, the report conveys a clear message: climate change is happening; the UK is not adequately preparing for it; acting now is cheaper than acting later.’
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