The government has made great strides in offering its views on the potential catastrophic effects of ignoring climate change, but the debate over preparedness threatens to undermine those very solutions.
According to the Department or Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the launch last month of its UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2012 makes the
UK one of “the best prepared nations for the implications of climate change”.
The report sets out the key challenges facing the UK as a result of a changing climate, breaking them down by sector.
An attempt is made to quantify each potential impact in terms of the timescale in which it may happen, the consequence if it does, and the confi dence level of the prediction. So, for example, the report predicts that expected annual damage to residential property due to fl ooding will have high negative consequences in the short (2020s), medium (2050s) and long terms (2080s), and attaches a high confidence level to these predictions, while water supply demand deficits are deemed as becoming of high consequence by the 2050s, but with only medium confi dence in the prediction.
The report’s aim is to make every sector of the UK economy aware of the risks they face, so they know when and where to target resources for adapting to the changes. According to the report, the highest priorities are flood and coastal erosion, management of water resources and overheating of buildings, all of which require action within the next five years.
It is easy to be cynical about climate change predictions, as indeed one correspondent to this magazine has shown, writing: “To say that anyone can project to any degree of accuracy what the climate will be like in the 2020s, 2050s or 2080s, when meteorologists still cannot accurately predict the weather a month ahead, is stretching the bounds of credibility too far.” (NCE 16-23 February)
Actually, there is general agreement among experts that the science behind this report is as good as it gets. But as long as climate change is framed in terms of “predictions”, “projections”, “potential risks” and “confidence levels”, rather than exact numbers, the debate will continue as to when it will become necessary to make adaptations to protect critical infrastructure against the effects.
This factor has been identified both by the Pitt Review into the 2007 floods. But maybe we are missing the point if we are waiting for the scientists to produce specific numbers telling us by exactly how many millimetres sea level will rise in 2020, or on what date temperatures will increase above acceptable levels in office buildings. Instead, as Halcrow principal coastal scientist Adam Hosking says, we should use the predictions in the CCRA to make sure we’re prepared for what might happen, and to know when we need to act.
“You don’t have to act right away — as long as you know what might happen and what to look for,” he says. “If in fi ve years’ time you see some trend evolving, then you’ll know what to do, because you’ve understood the vulnerabilities presented here and you know what’s your threshold, what’s your tolerance.”
Waiting until it becomes clear that measures need to be taken would overcome one obstacle identifi ed in the Pitt Review — that “there is a lack of incentives to invest in adaptation when the short-term benefits may not be that obvious”. However, it relies on funding being available when the need arises, and that is not always the case.
Under current mechanisms, companies in the regulated industries have to identify at the start of every funding period how much they want to spend and on what, so they would have to make a decision well in advance if they think they should include any climate change adaptation measures. In the energy sector, the price control period is being extended to eight years, and energy companies are having to decide now if they think they will need to build any adaptation measures between now and 2021.
Water regulator Ofwat has indicated that there is scope for flexibility in its industry. Water companies work to a five-year price cycle, the latest of which started in 2010. Their business plans for this cycle included climate change predictions that were drawn up in 2002, and indicated that between them the companies expected to spend around £1.5bn up to 2015 to address the effects of climate change on water supply and demand. The Climate Change Risk Assessment is based on 2009 figures, and Ofwat has said that it will “take into account in an interim determination” any extra expenditure they require during the 2010-15 pricing period to deal with the impact of climate change on water resources based on these updated figures.
Another alternative would be for government itself to drive adaptation, either through policy or by making funding available. It would certainly be a popular option: the Pitt Review found that over 80% of people are looking to the government to provide leadership on preparing for climate change. And the Defra report itself hints at the necessity of government level involvement when it comes to flood risk management — one of the biggest anticipated threats — saying: “Major decisions on overall levels of funding and on the need for specific schemes will be required before 2020 to ensure that the UK is prepared.”
More advice on adaptation is due to be published by Defra next year.