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Climate change is already happening – we must tackle global climate risk and adapt

4 min read

As you read this, the eyes of the world are turning to Glasgow. Representatives from 195 nations are coming together at the COP26 climate summit to agree the next, crucial, steps to keeping global temperature rise to levels agreed in 2015 in Paris.

Their arrival in Scotland comes hot on the heels of the IPCC’s latest report – providing the clearest picture to date of the possible climate futures ahead of us, depending on how fast we reduce global emissions. The science has never been clearer or more urgent.

The fingerprint of our emissions is now detectable in changes in heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, crop failures and intense rainfall in ever more parts of the world – including the UK. If global emissions remain high, we will see climate and weather conditions this century that are nothing like those we have experienced throughout human history, with profound, if not catastrophic, impacts on people and on nature everywhere.

But we haven’t lost the battle – the evidence is clear that by changing our economies and our behaviours: our energy and agricultural systems, how we heat our buildings, travel, eat, produce goods and use our land, we can reduce global emissions to net-zero by mid-century and keep warming to safer levels – not eliminating, but significantly limiting the climate risks that we face.

The Environment Agency has recently warned us starkly to 'adapt or die'

The UK has become one of the first industrialised countries to set out a detailed plan for ending its contribution to global warming; the Net Zero Strategy. The document is not a silver bullet, nor does it have all the answers to every question that we in the Climate Change Committee have asked of government. There is of course work still to do. But it does set a clear mandate for key sectors of the UK economy to drive down their emissions to practically zero by 2050. This is good progress, and a fitting start to the UK’s COP26 presidency.

The industrial revolution began here, and so must the green revolution. The transition is affordable, deliverable and has many co-benefits. At COP26, the UK must encourage other nations to do the same. 

But net-zero is only part of the solution. Climate impacts are being felt today – particularly in some of the poorest parts of the world – and the climate will continue to warm over coming decades, until we reach net-zero. The last 10 years have been the hottest on record, and as we approach 2050, we will look back on every decade as being the hottest 10 years on record. Action to adapt to these changes is critical and urgent – in parallel with the efforts to reduce emissions. The Environment Agency has recently warned us starkly to “adapt or die”.

In the UK, we’re facing risks to agriculture, wildlife and the nature-based solutions needed to reach net-zero, as well as risks to health, essential infrastructure, and supply chains.

For many parts of the globe the risks are much more extreme. Climate change impacts exacerbate poverty, those with the least are disproportionately affected and least able to recover and build resilience.

Without adaptation action, winning the battle of delivering net-zero will still mean a bleak future for many and an incomplete response to the challenge of climate change. Delivering a step-up in global climate adaptation is at the heart of the COP26 challenge – and must be central to agreements in Glasgow. Rich nations must contribute appropriately and generously to funding the climate protections needed in the most challenged regions of the world. We need a transition that is fair and just at an international and a local level.

This COP26 summit, then, must be about securing a net-zero and a resilient planet. Tackling climate change for current and future generations will only be successful if we do both. And let’s ensure that, by the next global summit, the UK is leading the world with its strategy for climate resilience – just as it is now with net-zero.


Baroness Brown is a crossbench peer and chair of the Adaptation Committee of the Climate Change Committee.

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