Getting climate ready

9th August 2013


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Defra has published its first national adaptation plan. Lucie Ponting looks at its contents and gauges reaction

Businesses, local authorities and communities that address the risks from climate change early can avoid the worst outcomes, remain competitive and even reap the benefits from the opportunities it will present. This is the central message and call to action in the government’s much anticipated first national adaptation programme (NAP).

In setting out the case for adaptation, the 184 page document quotes statistics showing that 64% of UK businesses have suffered supply chain disruption due to extreme weather and 70% of major businesses and their suppliers see significant risk from climate change. But, despite acknowledging the degree of risk, only 40% of large businesses are acting to ensure they are ready to deal with the impact of climate change.

All the evidence suggests that extreme weather events – such as the flooding in late 2012 across large parts of the UK or the severe drought earlier that year – are likely to become more frequent and more acute, potentially disrupting the economy.

The cost to the UK of floods in 2007, for example, was estimated at £3.2 billion. Damage to communications, transport and roads totalled £230 million, while the overall bill for affected businesses was estimated at £740 million – on average this was about £100,000 per company, with some taking up to 27 weeks to return to normal operating capacity.

“Reacting to current climate or extreme weather events is often expensive,” says the report. At the same time, economists have estimated that every £1 spent on adaptation could be worth four times as much in potential damages avoided.

As well as avoiding damage and costs, there are also opportunities for organisations that are climate ready. The government claims the UK is already leading the way in the international market for adaptation goods and services, such as flood defence and climate modelling. According to the business department, globally this growing sector is valued at around £65.8 billion.

A vision for society

The NAP – a legal commitment in the Climate Change Act 2008 – is largely based on the 2012 climate change risk assessment (CCRA), which revealed that unless the government, businesses and communities adapt, the UK could incur significant costs and miss important opportunities.

The programme’s stated vision is: “A society which makes timely, far-sighted and well-informed decisions to address the risks and opportunities posed by a changing climate.”

To achieve this, the report outlines 31 objectives across seven themes: built environment; infrastructure; healthy and resilient communities; agriculture and forestry; natural environment; business; and local government. The NAP mainly applies to England (the devolved administrations are developing their own plans – see panel), but also covers reserved, excepted and non-devolved matters.

Within the wider vision, each chapter sets out what is required to ensure a particular sector of the economy is sufficiently prepared, describing the risks highlighted by the CCRA and subsequent Defra consultations that require urgent attention.

The 31 objectives cover four main areas: increasing awareness of current weather extremes; boosting the country’s resilience to such events; taking timely action for long lead time measures; and addressing evidence gaps. As might be expected, the priority cross-cutting risks are generally associated with flooding, rising temperatures and increased pressure on water resources, as periods of intense rainfall alternate with drought.

Some measures, described as “low-regret actions” – increased water efficiency, business continuity plans, checking insurance policies and better understanding supply-chain risks – deliver benefits now and are feasible under virtually any future climate scenario.

But other, long-term measures need to be flexible enough to respond to the changing nature of climate risks. For these, the report says, appraisal methods such as real options analysis – a way of evaluating capital investment choices by taking the strategic decision-making process into consideration – can help decision makers weigh up long-term investment solutions when there is considerable uncertainty about the future. This helps to avoid the development of expensive facilities that later become inappropriate for the climactic conditions.

First steps

Throughout the NAP, the government sets out its role, recognising its critical contribution in providing support and advice. The NAP also says the government will ensure that the country’s infrastructure is designed and built to cope with extreme weather events and will seek to “build the resilience” of native species and habitats. However, the overall thrust of the programme, and its launch in particular, is to put the onus on the private and third sectors, local authorities and communities to act by recognising the risks and seizing opportunities.

This aspect has been criticised by some environment campaigners, who had hoped for a fuller line-up of well-funded initiatives. Guy Shrubsole at Friends of the Earth, for example, highlights that authority and responsibility for adaptation is being devolved to councils just as their budgets are being cut. The programme looks worryingly like the government is “washing its hands” of proper responsibility, he says, a view that was reinforced when Defra cut the headcount of its team working on climate adaptation from 38 in 2009/10 to just six people this year.

Shrubsole also notes that both the NAP and CCRA use the mid-level emissions scenario. “For a programme concerned with resilience and risk mitigation not to take serious account of higher emission scenarios seems to be a major oversight,” he says. “The job of adaptation here is also to look at the risks and what we need to plan for if we don’t actually achieve that level [of emissions reduction].”

Olly Watts, at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, focuses on the issue of resourcing. On the positive side, he believes the programme’s sections on the natural environment and agricultural and forestry set important principles, recognising the importance of biodiversity, landscapes and ecosystems to human wellbeing and economic prosperity.

He also welcomes the emphasis in the NAP on adaptation planning for nature, as well as the acknowledgment that there are significant opportunities for action in the natural environment to interact with benefits and actions in other sectors and vice versa – for example, using ecosystems-based adaptation to restore floodplains.

In Watts’ view, however, the NAP’s words are not backed up by new action or new funding – or even a commitment to review whether additional money might be needed – despite recent evidence of declining species and wildlife sites. “We’d hoped the NAP would highlight a bit more action and resources to support that action, but were disappointed,” he says.

With Defra also receiving one of the highest budget cuts (9.6%) in the recent government spending review, Watts says it is difficult to see how the department will be able to deliver the improvements called for in the NAP.

Living up to expectations

Roger Street, director of the UK climate impacts programme (UKCIP), acknowledges that some people may have hoped for more from the NAP. But he takes a longer-term view, pointing out that this is the first plan and part of a much broader five-year cycle of CCRAs and further NAPs.

“There were a lot of high expectations of what was going to be in [the programme],” he says. “Does it do everything? No. But it was essential to get to the first step.” A lot of information has been put together for the first time, he adds, and although many people would have liked more, it was probably unrealistic to expect an extensive, fully funded programme in the current economic and political context.

Street also points out that the NAP’s approach is quite different to national plans in many other countries. “The way the programme is structured and looks to deliver adaptation is innovative, and seeing whether that is successful is very important,” he says.

In 2015, the adaptation group at the independent committee on climate change is due to scrutinise the NAP. “We should get real insight into [the programme’s] strengths and weaknesses,” says Street. “If it’s going in the wrong direction, there will be an opportunity to refocus it in future plans.”

UKCIP is, however, concerned about the wording of programme’s introduction, noting that it is “curious” that the NAP opens with a reference to “changeable weather”, rather than the more robust assertion of the need to respond to the unavoidable impact of climate change. Street describes the choice of words as “questionable”.

Dealing with extreme weather events is only part of what the NAP needs to do. “That’s not all climate change means,” he stresses. “We need to build capability to deal with changes outside the extremes.”

Up to you

The chapter devoted to business in the NAP is the least detailed in terms of government actions. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that the document notes clearly that: “It is up to businesses to decide individually what level of risk they can accept.” Here, Defra is clearly focusing on raising awareness through developing and disseminating information and tools, rather than practical interventions.

“The government will encourage businesses to review their strategic frameworks and models, promote knowledge sharing in areas of good practice and target support for those sectors facing the highest risks or greatest barriers to adaptation,” states the NAP. Help will be targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), so they better understand how climate change will impact their operations.

The Environment Agency’s climate ready support service, which works in partnership with trade and professional bodies, is leading most of the government’s work in this area. The programme notes also that the cabinet office has produced a guide for SMEs, Business continuity for dummies, and that work by IEMA (see panel) is helping to build capacity in businesses through increasing adaptation skills, professional competencies and the use of standards.

Andrew Brown, head of sustainability at Anglian Water, which is embedding adaptation across its business decisions and already acting in many of the areas specified in the programme, regards the NAP as an “important call to action”, and an opportunity to raise the profile of the issues and challenges facing businesses and communities.

Like Street, he points out that while the NAP represents a snapshot at a point in time – a chance to look at what has and is being done, and the things to focus on in the future – it is also part of a rolling programme.

“It’s a live document that we all need to engage with if we’re to prepare the country,” says Brown. He also cautions against reading the NAP in isolation, suggesting that organisations look carefully at the “really useful and digestible” CCRA sector summaries too.

Overall, Brown is hopeful the plan will help drive people to act, or those that are already acting to think about what more they need to do. “But the report won’t do it on its own; it’s how government, businesses and other stakeholders decide to take it on,” he emphasises. “[We] can’t say it’s down to the government to make it happen, but it is its role to create a framework.”

Brown highlights the importance of collaboration. “All of us have a part to play, and as a business we say to our suppliers and to others we have a relationship with: ‘This is what we are doing; have you thought about what you need to do?’” Anglian Water has been working with the Environment Agency through the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, for example, providing a workshop on climate change.

While the NAP report is by its nature focused on action at the UK level, it also highlights, though does not deal with in detail, the risks from climate change impacts overseas, quoting recent research by the business services company PwC. It concludes that the threats associated with climate change globally maybe larger than domestic threats, particularly for businesses with international supply chains and for food imports.

In terms of immediate next steps, the government is now considering how to approach the next CCRA, due in 2017, which will need to take account of new evidence on the nature of risks and impacts, and to reflect on the extent to which the risks have changed due to actions in and beyond the NAP.

For more information on National Rail and Anglian Water's adaptation plans click here


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