The army and mountain rescue workers carry out water rescues from flooding in York city centre

Flooding, like that pictured in York in 2015, will become more likely as sea levels and the frequency of extreme weather increase. Image © PhilMacDPhoto/Shutterstock

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UK must adapt to climate change now, report warns

The UK faces more deaths, higher costs and greater disruption if preparations to adapt to climate change aren't taken now, the government's climate advisors have warned. 

Biodiversity loss, extreme heat and power failure are among the serious risks the country faces this century from rising temperatures, which will grow more serious the longer action is delayed. 

The risks of climate change to the UK are growing, the government's climate advisors have said, as they call for action to adapt to a warmer future. 

The Climate Change Committee said that found 61 ways that the UK will be impacted by rising temperatures in the coming decades, with eight set to cost over £1 billion a year each by 2050. By 2045, the costs of climate change could reach around 1% of the UK's total economy by 2045, almost double the current size of the entire agricultural sector. In total.

Calling for preparations to begin immediately, the committee's report said, 'This new evidence shows that the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk. 

'The UK has the capacity and the resources to respond effectively to these risks, yet it has not done so. Acting now will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences. Government must lead that action.' 

Publishing the government's risk assessment, the climate adaptation minister Jo Churchill acknowledged their concerns, saying, 'The scale and severity of the challenge posed by climate change means we cannot tackle it overnight, and although we've made good progress in recent years there is clearly much more that we need to do. 

'By recognising the further progress that needs to be made, we're committing to significantly increasing our efforts and setting a path towards the third National Adaptation Programme which will set ambitious and robust policies to make sure we are resilient to climate change into the future.'

A long and dusty dry dirt road lined with fencing

Summers reaching temperatures of more than 35⁰C are likely to be commonplace by the 2050s at the current rate of global warming. Image © Simon Annable/Shutterstock

What are the risks of climate change to the UK? 

Since the passing of the 2008 Climate Change Act into law, the UK's government has been required to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, following earlier treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol

The act also established the Climate Change Committee, who provide independent scientific advice to the government on the issue as well as reporting on their progress. Since 2012, they have published risk advice periodically to identify the threats climate change poses to the UK. 

To date, 53 risks and eight opportunities have been identified by the committee, which include impacts that will affect education to cultural heritage. Following the first report, 15 risks are now judged more severe than the committee's initial predictions. 

Eight risks have been identified as particularly severe, with the possibility they could each individually cause more than £1 billion of damage a year by 2050 if temperatures rise by 2⁰C. Risks to the environment, such as biodiversity loss, declining soil health and crop destruction, make up the majority of the list, as well as supply chain impacts, the risk of power failure and extreme heat

The eighth risk is that of cascade effects, where the impacts of climate change in other parts of the world spill over into the UK. An example given is a pandemic, where warmer temperatures can exacerbate the spread of new and emerging diseases.

A stream runs through peatland in the Shetlands

A warmer and drier climate threatens habitats like peatlands, which support a unique range of biodiversity. Image © Alan Morris/Shutterstock

What impact are these climate change risks having? 

Many of the identified risks are already beginning to make themselves known. Sea levels around the UK have already risen by 6.5 centimetres since the 1990s, putting homes and low-lying habitats at risk. By 2050, this rise may be up to five times as high. 

Temperatures are also rising, with the summers that are currently the hottest on record likely to become commonplace in the next 30 years. A 2021 study found that extreme heat is currently responsible for around 1% of global deaths, and that percentage is increasing. 

Aside from direct impacts, extreme heat will also affect people in many other ways. Freshwater fish could die as rivers become deoxygenated due to heat, while the crop losses of some varieties are predicted to increase by as much as 40%, threatening food security.  

Extreme heat also raises the risk of rails buckling, while a 2014 study found that the London Underground will probably become too hot for comfort even if steps to cool it down are taken. Homes, schools and hospitals are also among the buildings that are not well adapted to rising temperatures.

Activists holdplacards at a Youth Strike 4 Climate demonstration rally in Parliament Square

The Climate Change Committee says that adaptation to climate change must also tackle existing inequalities. Image © John Gomez/Shutterstock

What can be done to mitigate these climate change risks? 

The Climate Change Committee says that the UK must begin to mitigate the impacts of rising temperatures now, rather than wait until the effects become even more pronounced. As well as saving lives, these measures will prevent higher costs in the future. 

They have said that adaptation must become a key part of all government policies, alongside efforts to reduce global emissions nationally and internationally. 

In particular, the committee said that 'locked-in' changes, which are made early in a project and cannot easily be adapted later on, need to be avoided. For instance, retrofitting homes with windows and shutters adapted to extreme heat is four times as expensive as fitting them when it is built. 

Such costs may also widen existing inequalities, with the advisory panel saying that efforts to tackle climate change must be designed to ensure that no one is left behind. 

The UK's government says it is already working to address ways in which the country can adapt to climate change, including investment in flood defences and habitat restoration.  

Measures to reduce the impact of buildings have also been introduced, such as requiring new school buildings to be net zero in operation and enforcing new rules designed to reduce the carbon emissions of new homes. 

These measures, and others under development, will be used to create the next National Adaptation Programme, which will be presented to Parliament in 2023.