AN EXAMINATION OF THE GOVERNMENT’S RECORD ON MITIGATION AND ADAPTATION.
By: Sue Cooper
“We are facing a global catastrophe. Climate change is happening. And happening fast”.
David Attenborough “Climate Change – The Facts” (2019) BBC iPlayer
What progress is the UK government making to help us avert or adapt to this well documented catastrophe? – which they have an obligation to do under the Climate Change Act of 2008.
THE GOVERNMENT HAS PRODUCED THREE CLIMATE CHANGE RISK ASSESSMENTS – HAVE THEY ACTED ON THEM?
The Climate Change Act obliges the Government to produce five-yearly Climate Change Risk Assessments (CCRA). These are used by the Climate Change Committee (CCC)in their regular reports to Parliament to assess progress.
The first CCRA was produced in 2012, the second in 2017 and the third in 2022. Three of the key messages of the most recent CCC progress report are pretty scathing and include the following: “The UK Government now has a solid Net Zero strategy in place, but important policy gaps remain”; (…) “Tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition”; (…) “The Net Zero Strategy contained warm words on many of the cross- cutting enablers of the transition, but there has been little concrete progress.”
Lord Deben, Chair of the CCC, in his Foreword to the full June 2022 Report to Parliament is somewhat blunt: “In targets, the UK is indeed a world leader.”
IS THE GOVERNMENT TACKLING THE BIGGEST RISKS?
For most of us at this stage, what we really need to know is how prepared are we to adapt to Climate Change? After all, the three Climate Change Risk Assessments (CCRAs) from 2012, 2017 and 2022 all say that climate change is not in the future, it is now. Indeed as the first of these stressed in 2012: “We know that our climate has changed and will continue to change, and that the pace of change this century could be unprecedented …”
And further that:
“… Climate change is where the real world meets the real economy – building effective climate resilience using a combination of the best evidence available alongside risk-based approaches is a pre-requisite for long-term economic, societal, and environmental sustainability.” Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
So what risks have the CCRAs identified as being most pressing?
Sadly, in the second CCRA there are than twice as many items in the ‘More Action Needed’ category than in the ‘Sustain Current Action’ That is, far more items were judged to need new, stronger or different government and trade; and of new and emerging pests and diseases and invasive species affecting people, plants and animals.
These six areas are shown in the table below from the 2017 CCRA.
Above: Table from the 2017 CCRA
THE COVID CONNECTION
Incidentally, had that final risk been addressed properly after this report of six years ago, perhaps we would have been better prepared for Covid 19. Especially given that apparently back in 2017: “The UK has a proven system in place for monitoring international disease
threats to human and animal health.” Very reassuring.
THE MOST PRESSING RISKS FOR FAVERSHAM? IT’S ALL IN THE WATER
There were further subcategories and 20 more specific points highlighted for ‘More Action Needed’ in the 2017 report.
Perhaps the most painful read of these for those of us who live near creeks and seas is the ‘Risk of sewer flooding due to heavy rainfall’. According to Surfers against Sewage, in 2022 alone sewage was discharged into rivers and seas 389,000 times.
In Faversham, given the ongoing decades-old inadequacies of the local sewage treatment works, and the explosion of new housing which is presumably feeding into it, this may lead you to question your political representative. (Helen Whately voted against a 2021 Amendment that would have demanded water companies reduce dumping into rivers)
Indeed, according to theyworkforyou.com, Helen Whately has consistently voted against measures to prevent climate change.
WATER WATER – BUT NOT EVERYWHERE
However, perhaps of even more concern in the arid South East are some of the other risks shown in the table below (remember, these were highlighted 6 years ago). Notably perhaps: risks to agriculture and wildlife from water scarcity and flooding; risks of land management practices exacerbating flood risk; risks of cascading infrastructure failures across interdependent networks; risks to infrastructure from surface and groundwater flooding; risks to public water supplies from drought and low river flows; Risks to public health and well-being from high temperatures; risks to people communities and buildings from flooding; risks to business sites from flooding; Weather related shocks to global food production and trade; and – also of great relevance to the South East with the current tragedies on the coast: risks from climate related international human displacement.
Perhaps the most pressing issue in the South East is that of water security. It is an area very prone to drought and the CCC report includes the fact that new water supplies are needed particularly in the South East in addition to better repair and increased efficiency in the existing supply. Part of this should be strategies for reducing demand for water. Sadly, under this Government, according to the CCC demand for water has actually increased since 2017 having been falling up to that date, and attention to leakages has improved only very slightly since 2021 with little overall improvement over the past 10 years. In short, the projections for water use and supply are very far from aligned with the targets – which sounds complicated but actually means at least a section of the population in the South East could lose access to a reliable safe water supply in the foreseeable future.
WHAT ABOUT FOOD SHORTAGES AND PRICE HIKES?
It might be of current interest that in the introduction to the second CRA (2017) it is stated that: In general, the UK Government and the Devolved Governments endorse the conclusions of the Evidence Report prepared by the Adaptation Sub- Committee, with the exception of some of the conclusions on food security. It might be worth another question to your MP and others if the Govt now regrets the now rather complacent-looking statement on page 16: “The resilience of food supply chains is regularly tested by severe weather and other events, and consistently performs well. The Evidence Report’s recommendation that new policy is needed to manage risks to UK food prices therefore does not align with the findings from our own research, including that carried out for the UK Food Security Assessment in 2009 and reviewed in 2012. The Government takes a more optimistic view of the levels of resilience that are achieved through functioning markets and diverse sources of supply”.
While the Govt currently, some might say rather distastefully, points to the war in Ukraine and/ or Covid, as a main reason for current problems including food shortages and price spikes, it
has been pointed out by many sources including a recent article in the Guardian of 20th April 2023, that in fact bad weather in places as widely spread as Brazil, India, Spain and Morocco has been a significant factor. Also, of course, Covid may have been at least partly one of the ‘new and emerging diseases this report warns of. In addition, there are some who raise the idea that the attempts by Russia to annex Ukraine are at least in part driven by the need for greater food security for their population in a climate-uncertain future and thus due at least in part to climate change.
In any event, apparently the government was prepared for the impact of fuel prices on food availability since as is also stated on p 16 The Government has already carried out research into the risks to food supply from extreme weather events, including the potential impacts
of tidal flooding on supply chains through seaports and the energy dependency of food chains. …
Perhaps they might go back and pay more attention to both the warning of the scientists who were warning them about the dangers to food security and also to their own introduction to the first of these risk assessments: “More than ever we live in a world where changes to the economy, society, and to the environment are so fundamental that the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future.”
WHAT ABOUT THE BUILDINGS WE LIVE IN?
2022 was the warmest year on record ever and came as part of the ten hottest years since records began which have all been this century. There were 3000 recorded additional deaths in 2022 that were attributed to temperatures which topped 40 degrees in several recording sites. Remember when Faversham was known to have had the highest ever recorded temperature at 38.5 degrees Celsius in 2003? That is now regularly being topped and should be causing great alarm. The human body cannot survive for long if there is high humidity at temperatures over a mere 35 degrees celsius. These high temperature events may not last more than a few days, but for those who succumb, the restoration of ‘normal' temperatures after those few days is somewhat irrelevant. This makes the well document lack of any real policies for the heat-proofing of care homes particularly irresponsible.
UK average temperature under future global emissions scenarios.
Above: Progress in reducing emissions 2022 report to Parliament charts and data.
In the UK, an important aspect of reducing emissions and also helping with the rocketing cost of heating homes is that of household energy and retrofitting homes. In 2020 there was briefly a Green Homes Grant. Widely touted as the answer to mass retrofitting of the UK housing stock (which has been estimated by the Energy Saving Trust (8) to be responsible for 21% of the UKs emissions. Of these 30 million homes, around 85% are on the gas network or using other fossil fuels) the scheme lasted less than a year and closed to new applicants in summer 2021.
Of all the new homes being built around Faversham, how many are truly ready for Climate Change?
HAVE THE RISKS BEEN ADDRESSED?
Does the latest Climate Change Risk Assessment paint a positive picture of Government action?
So what about the third of these CCRA? To me, perhaps the most alarming inclusion, is the quiet and understated mention, and seeming acceptance, of the possibility of 4°C above pre- industrial levels. Lets be clear: there is little doubt that this would result in a world which would be incapable of sustaining life as we now know it.
Indeed, this figure gave me immediate cause to go looking for research I did four years ago when I first became aware of the ‘five emissions scenarios’.
Above: Both charts Met office source.
These emissions scenarios from were used the UK Met Office in 2018 to make projections
for the Government about the world depending on whether we reduced our reliance on fossil fuels or not. They used the idea of Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs).
In a nutshell, if I remember correctly, these were predicted outcomes of various scenarios combining how much Greenhouse Gas etc humanity contributed to the atmosphere combined with sociological and political actions to mitigate this. The most optimistic, and indeed the one that we needed to be following to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, was RCP 2.6. This required emissions globally to have peaked in 2020. At that date, global emissions would have reached the maximum that the planet could tolerate to be able to support life as we knew it and we needed at that point to start both reducing and reversing emissions.
As we all know, global emissions have not only not peaked, they have been accelerating. So, it is no surprise to me that we are quietly ditching RCP 2.6. The inescapable conclusion is that the only way we can now limit the rise to 1.5, and thus have some hope of maintaining life on earth as it exists now, is if we stop all emissions immediately AND increase the planet’s ability to reabsorb the carbon that is in our atmosphere.
As you can see, the Government, while mentioning the possibility of 4°C of warming, does not actually include the RCP 8.5 projections – as in the Met office chart below. We can only speculate as to why. As can be seen from the stratospheric trajectory of the emissions shown in the chart, we are heading towards far, far higher temperature rises in the UK than are shown in the rather benign looking soft green colours of th Progress Chart (Left) for RCP 4.5 if the emissions trajectory is correct in the chart.
Well, below is a selection from the table of ‘More Action Needed’ risks from 2022. There are far too
Above: Both charts Met office source. Right: Part of More Action Needed (2022)
many to reproduce them all (34) but see if you can spot some familiar friends (you may also be baffled by the positive sign in front of the winter heating risk… yes, the Government
assesses winter warming as being positive, maybe that explains the somewhat baffling lack of prioritising of the poorest during the current fuel crisis… you are supposed to be experiencing a warm spell in January so don’t need your heating): …
Part of More Action Needed (2022)
In the tables potential costs and damages are denoted with a negative sign e.g. - VH while possible opportunities are denoted with a positive sign e.g., +VH. Where uncertainty exists over the category, the range has been indicated e.g. – L to – VH. For some of the risks and opportunities, there are both potential costs and benefits.
Interestingly, this most recent CCRA also specifies a few surprising areas as being in
need of further research This is surprising because they had already been highlighted for action in previous reports - (note that still, in 2022, research into risks affecting food security seems to be given a low priority.
THE FOUR ES
Maybe, just speculating here – if you decided to make your 2023 Spring Budget Statement about things beginning with the fifth letter of the alphabet and you were a member of a Government that had declared a climate emergency, the first word to spring to mind in your E list might be …. Um … let me think … Enterprise? No that’s not it … (but good thinking guys, we all need a Star Ship to get away on once the tsunamis start sloshing); Employment? No that’s not it either (but there are going to be some good jobs going in the new coal mines and gas fields); Education? Nope (although we need to educate more scientists we can ignore – and as we now know, everyone needs A level Maths); One more!! Come on you’ve got one more …Ummm… Everywhere?
And we all thought the Environment would be on the tippy tip of the Government’s tongue given the Climate Emergency declaration and the CCRAs and the CCC and all. Still, Everywhere is actually a good one since that is where global climate breakdown is.
So, if you want to tackle your damp, drafty home heating problems without simply turning up the gas, you are on your own there. Even though the Government is fully aware that helping you to do that would tackle one of the biggest emissions issues we face in the UK as well as help you slash those sky rocketing energy bills.
If you think I’m being a bit unfair springing this one on an unsuspecting Government, this is what the CCC report from last June recommended: “Create a public energy advice service to provide households with guidance on decarbonising and adapting their homes to climate change by this summer, as committed in the Energy Security Strategy. This should include an online platform including high-level trusted information and advice (including on Government schemes), a link to local providers who can undertake assessments of home energy performance, and bespoke support for households wishing to undertake more complex retrofits.”
I didn’t find anything up to date about this on the Government website but I did find the useful reminder about the emergency alerts going out on 23 April. These alerts are highly likely to be about issues that have been raised in the three Climate Change Risk Assessments and, as government action goes it strikes me as being a bit like an ambulance crew ringing you up just as you have a heart attack and shouting “YOU’RE HAVING A HEART ATTACK” down the phone before going home for tea.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Lets be scrupulously fair however. The issue of Greenhouse Gas Emissions is on the Government’s mind. In the Spring statement, the emphasis for tackling these was put onto Carbon Capture Usage and Storage. Basically, this is the idea that we can carry on emitting dangerous gases because we can make magic cooker hood like mechanisms to suck them back out of the air again and sell them in a market that doesn’t actually really exist yet either. This idea has attracted £20 billion in the Spring budget. Well, I guess that sounds like my intention to be scrupulously fair got a bit knocked of course there, but that is because these
magic projects which perpetuate the myth that we don’t have to cut our reliance on fossil fuels are being massively funded by a Government that is incapable of seeing anything but the money. The other fairytale that is getting top level attention and funding is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – which is most notably being undertaken by the highly controversial Drax power station which is, allegedly, responsible for huge areas of
Canadian deforestation to feed its insatiable thirst for ‘sustainable’ biomass fuel.
So, at least the Government is trying. I mean, this is an impossible problem isn’t it?
Well, yes, its pretty tricky but there are actual proven natural carbon capture solutions that are funded by a miserable and frankly suicidal fraction of that given to speculative, headline grabbing big business climate investment opportunities.
(They don’t hide this fact by the way. All the way through the Governments response to the Independent Review of Net Zero Recommendations we are told how keen they are to meet their ambitious climate ambitions (sic) alongside maximising the economic opportunities (I guess Lord Deben will award them world leader status for ambition as well as target setting). Sadly, the climate ambitions seem to run alongside economic opportunities like a badly maintained footpath runs alongside a modern ten lane motorway with no speed limit.
If you are now too depressed to read on, and who could blame you?, I suggest a therapeutic journey to ‘Otherlands’. While you might want to find some actual other lands, this is
a book written by a young palaeontologist by the name of Thomas Halliday, ‘Otherlands’ weaves his fascination with the fossil record into a series of exquisitely written tableaux
of life immediately before the earlier five mass extinctions. (No one holding a British passport was harmed in these mass extinction events so you may not have read about them in the press before.). While reading or listening you can cheer yourself with the thought that of all the scary fates that loom over us, those of being incinerated in a storm of hot glass spherule bullets or being swept away and drowned in the subsequent globally sloshing 100 metre tsunamis - as was the fate of nearly all life on earth 66 million years ago - are unlikely. Although, to be fair, the sloshing tsunamis are a bit of a possibility. However, avoiding the molten glass bullets is a fair old plus to my mind.
But where were we? Ah yes, a voyage through the most recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment to see what progress has been made.
But there has been some funding for so called natural solutions. Seagrass, for example, has been assessed by the Wildlife Trusts as being able to capture carbon at a rate 35 times that
of carbon capture in tropical rainforest and in 2020 Natural England trumpeted £2.5 million for restoration of seagrass beds which are also known to act as coastal erosion and flooding mitigation. So a proven carbon capture and storage system with proven benefits to ecosystems and future climate resilience are funded to the tune of a disastrously tiny fraction of the funding given to speculative unreliable, expensive and untested engineering projects by a Government that sees only big business and has no understanding of how the real world (ie the actual planet) works. They would rather throw tens of billion upon tens of billions of pounds into unproven ‘Big Business As Usual’ fantasies than into supporting our evaporating, devastated natural systems where, in my opinion and that of many others, our real hope of solutions lies.
Think what we could do if we invested billions rather than, at best, millions into restoring
nature and genuinely recreating the natural carbon cycle that we have so crippled over the past couple of centuries. And in so doing built truly community- centred, sustainable, low energy/ low carbon homes in harmony with nature - which is the only real way I can see that in the time we have available (terrifyingly little) we have any remaining hope of perpetuating the Holocene.
THE CLIMATE WE NEED
The Holocene is the climate period from around 10,000 years ago in which the planet achieved a fine, delicate yet stable balance of planetary gases that created the conditions
in which humanity and a vast beautiful array of other life could thrive. We are now tragically and increasingly unavoidably at the beginning of the Anthropocene, in which humanity has tipped that fine balance out of kilter by pumping various gases out of the rocks and into the atmosphere.
We now need to think seriously and urgently about how to adapt to a changing climate in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the most obviously pressing are food and water security.
Baroness Brown, Chair of the CCC Adaptation Committee, has talked of a ‘lost decade’ for adaptation action. This she put down largely to a perception that it is “a problem for DEFRA” rather than an over-arching issue across Government. This has resulted in comments from the CCC in their 2022 report on adaptation progress which note that, while in some departments plans seem advanced, there is lack of evidence of effectiveness on the ground in areas from Forest and Fisheries, Food Security and Infrastructure. For this latter, the report concludes that there is no evidence of cross-government collaboration on understanding or adapting the interdependence of infrastructure to increase resilience. The planning system is failing to incorporate climate resilience for example with little being done about surface water flooding despite recent extreme rainfall events. New homes are still being built on floodplains and opportunities to incorporate trees and water into new designs are generally being missed. Overheating is actually now included in new domestic design but is lacking in healthcare or in existing housing. Local communities are not being engaged or even informed and the Government is only at the very early stages of working with businesses.
WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
It is even more urgent that extremely rapid action is taken without delay. Not least because it is widely predicted by meteorologists that this year will be an ‘El Nino’ year. This is a weather event that used to be confined to the tropics in its devastating conditions since it is probably prompted by equatorial ocean heating. But with climate change, El Nino events will be among the more predictable of the increasingly unpredictable climate events in what used to be the temperate regions. Last year was the hottest ever and it was not an El Nino year. This is likely to be hotter. We need our government to switch priorities onto plans for an El Nino summer this year.
In the very short meantime, please lobby for more urgency in the political agenda – and for far more local community involvement so that the agenda is actually fit for purpose but just in case:
BUILD A COMPOST TOILET
INVEST IN A REALLY BIG WATER BUTT
LEARN HOW TO DISTIL SEA WATER