Now more than ever, climate resilience and adaptation need to be put on an equal footing with mitigation
WSP's Christine Wissink explains why climate resilience and adaptation need to be elevated up the agenda to sit alongside mitigation.
There is now a predictable schedule of headlines which confirm we’re in the Great British Summer. The anticipated ‘hottest month on record’ was confirmed as June 2023, followed by incidences of thunderstorms causing flash floods across the country in July, and of course the sombre Annual Progress Report to Parliament from the Climate Change Committee.
This list is not exhaustive but represents distinct yet interlinked topics: climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience.
Tackling climate change has three key areas of focus: mitigation – the steps we are taking to decarbonise the way we live and limit the future impact of climate change; adaptation – actions and processes that help adjust long-term to the impacts of adverse changes to our climate; and resilience – our ability to quickly and effectively prepare for, respond to and recover from climactic events.
As highlighted through the UN COP process, much work has and is being done globally on climate mitigation. Globally, around 90% of emissions are now covered by net zero targets.
Meaningful action on these targets is crucial and currently the rate of delivery remains inconsistent, whilst the impact of global temperature rises becomes an increasing reality.
However, whilst removing carbon from our transport, energy, buildings, industry, infrastructure and agriculture is vital work to make the world a more sustainable place for our children and grandchildren, the inescapable truth is that much damage to the climate and the environment we live in, has already been done.
Climate change is already significantly affecting large regions of the world, noting devastating heatwaves and wildfires in Spain, Greece, Canada and Hawaii. The damage to our climate is changing the way people will live forever, so our focus needs to shift to adapting to this new reality. As such, adaptation measures must now be put on an equal footing with mitigation to build our resilience to climate change.
During London Climate Action Week earlier in the summer, WSP co-hosted an event alongside Resilience First, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions team and other high-profile organisations to discuss making the business case for climate resilience. This important discussion was set against the context of 3.5bn people around the world now living with the impact of climate change, but only 1% of finance directed globally to resilience projects emanating from the private sector.
Chris Skidmore's independent ‘Mission Zero’ review of net zero made clear that the economic benefits of transitioning to a net zero economy outweigh the challenges, which aptly frames the conversation around mitigation, but for the millions of people already experiencing the devastating impact of climate change, it is already too late for mitigation to counter this.
Consider this in the UK context; increasingly dry periods are causing more frequent and severe water stress across the South and East. Higher temperatures are resulting in train tracks which are too hot to operate fully. Increasingly strong rainfall and stormy periods are causing coastlines to break away and fall into the sea, and homes to be destroyed by floods. The human and environmental impact is devastating with the potential to have long-lasting negative economic effects.
For instance, research by WSP has shown that if nothing is done to protect Looe in Cornwall from tidal flooding, its local economy could lose £100m by 2050 due to declining employment, and Bristol University research suggests that the UK’s annual flood damage cost could rise by a fifth over the next century, hitting the bottom line of insurers and ultimately costing homeowners more.
What is clear is that we must be considering and making decisions today about infrastructure, buildings and economic growth based on a 30-year scope of climate change impacts. Every road, bridge, rail line, building and home must be designed with increasingly intense weather and broader changes to our climate in mind. Will the materials used bend, buckle or break when the thermometer reaches 40 degrees? Will a building be too hot to work or sleep in during summer? Will a rail line be stable when the ground beneath it swells and contracts due to excessive rainfall or drought?
These are all considerations we must take into account as we adapt our way of life to one with a changing climate. Decarbonisation is crucial but so too is adapting to climate change and building resilience into our systems and processes. As climate impacts start to affect the balance sheets of the private sector, it could be that economic investment in resilience measures finally comes, but we cannot wait forever as we could be fighting a losing battle on two fronts.
So, how do we solve this? One answer is adaptation planning and pathways which demonstrate how investment can be combined with regular asset management to build resilience. By assessing the effectiveness of different adaptation measures, we can quickly identify actions that should be taken now versus those that can be taken later as our climate changes.
If we apply this to our thinking and decision-making, no matter what the future looks like, our communities, economies and environment will continue to be great places to live, work and play.
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