UK warned its failure to adapt to warming threatens net zero target

A wildfire in Scotland, UK, in March 2021


The UK government has been warned that its failure to adapt to deadly temperatures, extreme flooding other effects of climate change is endangering the country’s goal of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050.

Climate impacts are already testing the UK’s resilience to a warmer world, such as a six-day heatwave last August that was linked to hundreds of deaths. But the UK government’s statutory advisers on climate change say the country’s response has been inadequate frustrating.

“Overall, the level of risk that we are facing from climate change has increased since five years ago,” says Chris Stark at the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent public body that advises the UK government parliament. “Our preparations are not keeping pace with the risks that we face. That is a very concerning conclusion.”

In a report published today as part of the UK’s third climate change risk assessment, the CCC says warmer wetter winters hotter drier summers are already posing a risk to people, nature the economy after only 1°C of climate change globally. Without further adaptation, heat-related deaths in the UK could more than triple as temperatures rise, from about 2000 a year now to around 7000 by 2050. Other risks facing the UK include an increase in wildfires landslides.

The CCC is damning about the UK government’s failure to act in recent years, citing examples such as the 570,000 homes built in the past five years that aren’t resilient to future heat. “We are frustrated. Some of these issues, like overheating in buildings, we’ve been raising consistently for over a decade,” says Stark.

Julia King at the CCC says that after the last climate change risk assessment in 2017, the ensuing adaptation plan from the government was inadequate. “It didn’t address many of the risks highlighted in the risk assessment it wasn’t action-focused, it was very much process. The time for action was some time ago, but it’s now getting really urgent.”

Today’s report makes clear that even with only 2°C of global warming, the upper limit of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the UK faces greater climate impacts. In a world with 2°C of warming, the number of very high-damage risks from climate change will increase from four now to 14 in the 2080s, costing at least tens of billions of pounds per year.

Too much government planning assumes that the world will only warm by 2°C, says Stark. “We would say that is an optimistic outcome for a global temperature rise.” Warming of more than 2°C would require spending much more money on flood defences, cooling measures such as shades on buildings, more.

Failure to adapt will imperil the UK’s net zero target, according to the CCC. “We cannot deliver net zero without adaptation,” says King. She says the main reason why is that the UK is relying on nature-based solutions, from planting trees to restoring peatlands, to remove CO2 emissions by 2050, which would be undermined by a lack of adaptation.

Another risk to the net zero goal is that, in the coming years, the UK will have a much bigger power sector be much more reliant on it. Climate change risks to power stations pylons range from flooding to lightning strikes, such as the one that caused a large blackout halted trains in August 2019.

A spokesperson for the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs didn’t comment on the alleged failings on adaptation, but said the department welcomed the report “will consider its recommendations closely”.

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