The UK needs to get serious about adapting to climate change
The climate emergency is on our doorstep and, alongside reducing emissions, the United Kingdom must increase its focus on climate adaptation using nature as our key ally.
The most recent National Adaptation Programme has fallen short on ambition but key measures can still be taken to safeguard Britain for the future.
Scientists predict 2023 will be the hottest year ever. We have recently witnessed record temperatures in a heatwave across southern Europe. Last year in the UK temperatures reached 40°C with widespread drought and record numbers of associated wildfires. This June was the hottest ever recorded and a recent marine heatwave has seen temperatures in our oceans four to five °C above average.
High-quality nature-based solutions can help protect homes, businesses and livelihoods and deliver for climate
These extreme temperatures are part of wider changes in our climate since the industrial revolution, accelerating in the last few decades – all ten of the UK’s warmest years have occurred since 2002. These changes in climate are having impacts on public health, infrastructure, the economy and our natural world. We are in a nature and climate emergency and it is vital to recognise that biodiversity loss and climate change are intrinsically linked.
Earlier this year the Climate Change Committee (CCC) issued the stark warning that “climate change has arrived, yet the country is still strikingly unprepared”. Alongside drastically increasing our efforts to reduce emissions, government should focus more on how we adapt to a changing climate. The actions taken now will fundamentally affect how well we can adapt in the years to come.
Last week the government published the key policy mechanism that will set the direction for adapting to climate change for the next five years – the third National Adaptation Programme (NAP). In England, the previous National Adaptation Programmes did not prepare us for the changes in climate we are now seeing. Disappointingly, this third programme also fails to include the ambitious and clear vision needed for the UK to adapt effectively to climate change over the coming years.
Many of the actions listed in the programme are existing policy, such as the Environmental Land Management schemes and the Environment Act (2021). It fails to provide clear and measurable targets for adaptation and does not introduce new funding commitments for the natural environment, which is one of our greatest allies in preparing the UK to meet the challenges posed by climate change head on
However, publication of the NAP is only the beginning and the UK must increase efforts to deliver climate adaptation measures over the next five years and beyond. It is critical that nature plays a key role in these efforts.
High-quality nature-based solutions can help protect homes, businesses and livelihoods and deliver for climate. Peatlands in good condition can help slow the flow of water during storms; urban trees can provide shade and retain moisture which cools our towns and cities during extreme heat; saltmarshes can help buffer our coastlines and provide protection from sea-level rise. Analysis has shown that high quality nature-based solutions can help address 33 of the 34 climate change risks identified by the CCC as requiring more action, including the eight of the most urgent.
Restoring nature helps with net zero by storing carbon in vital habitats. It also provides significant public goods, including biodiversity benefits which would contribute towards our legally binding environmental targets, and helps improve our quality of life. By restoring nature as part of addressing climate change, we can make the most of its multiple co-benefits.
RSPB Greylake Nature Reserve in the Somerset Levels is an area near my constituency which shows the role of nature in addressing climate change whilst benefiting local communities and wildlife. The site has seen a process of wet peatland management, which has increased the amount of carbon stored on the site. The peat also helps in flood events, storing around 300,000 cubic metres of water during the early stages of a flood and 1.1m cubic metres at peak flood. Local wildlife has also seen huge benefits, with several significant species breeding there including 60 per cent of the Somerset Levels lapwing.
As a result of improved habitat management, the area now gives people more chances to get into nature, welcoming roughly 20,000 visitors per year. Examples such as this show that by restoring nature as part of our efforts to adapt to climate change, we can also make steps to reverse biodiversity loss and improve the places we live in. Sadly, the latest National Adaptation Programme acknowledges the benefits of nature-based solutions but does not go far enough to commit to delivering these adaptation measures and tackling the nature and climate emergencies together.
Whilst we know that efforts to reach net zero need to be increased across government, we must increase our focus on managing the reality of a warming climate, giving nature a visible role. People across the UK will be impacted by more frequent extreme heat and volatile weather events and they increasingly recognise the impacts on green spaces and wildlife caused by climate change. The UK needs to focus on effectively delivering the positive elements of the National Adaptation Programme and ensure that nature’s role is embedded in efforts to better prepare ourselves and our environment for a warming world.
Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath
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