Putting climate adaptation and resilience at the heart of everything we do

Energy & Climate Change, Flooding, Management & Regulation, Water Resources

Putting climate adaptation and resilience at the heart of everything we do

Last week, on the eve of the announcement of Alok Sharma as the UN climate change summit’s COP26 President, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove gave a keynote speech to a preparatory COP26 conference. There, whilst unable to confirm the new President, Gove did trail the government’s four priorities for the summit:

One was to lead the world in a new green industrial revolution. One was to secure greater support for small island and other developing states on loss and damage suffered due to climate change. One was to deliver nature-based solutions to climate change as widely as possible.

The other priority was to “put climate adaptation and resilience at the heart of everything we do”, recognising that irrespective of global decarbonisation progress, we are experiencing climate change now because of past emissions and are in for more – perhaps a lot more – over coming years and decades.

Climate Change Act

In the UK we are regarded as international leaders in climate change governance. In 2008 we were the first country in the world to pass a Climate Change Act. Last summer we were similarly leading in setting a net zero emissions target in law.

The Climate Change Act is rightly lauded for the way in which it provides for the setting of legally binding ‘carbon budgets’ which set a clear decarbonisation trajectory which must be complied with.

It is less well known for its provisions on adaptation, but they are significant. They are set out in Part 4 of the Act.

Clause 56 requires the Secretary of State to lay before parliament a report on the risks posed by climate change to the country, at least every 5 years. This is the Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) and it is informed by an evidence report prepared at least 6 months prior by the Committee on Climate Change.

Unsurprisingly given recent events, flooding features highly in the CCRA. As do the impacts of drought and heatwaves as well as invasive species.

The Climate Change Act also sets out a process through which various parties may be required to report on how well they are preparing for the impacts of climate change. These so-called ‘reporting authorities’ are defined under the Act as “any person or body with functions of a public nature… and persons who are, or are deemed to be, “statutory undertakers” under the relevant town and country planning legislation applicable in the different parts of the United Kingdom (for example, many utilities providers).”

Clause 62 confers power on the Secretary of State to direct a reporting authority to prepare such a report. This is commonly referred to as the ‘adaptation reporting power’. To date, there have been two rounds of reporting and a third is under way.

Voluntary approach to adaptation

Despite these powers, in the first two reporting rounds government adopted an approach whereby the requirement for reporting authorities to actually report was voluntary. None were ‘directed’ to report. This approach is being maintained for the third round.

Consequently, the range of authorities who actually filed a report was patchy. Obvious authorities did report – water, electricity, gas companies, road and rail network, and ports, airports and lighthouse operators for example. Other bodies including a number within the ‘Defra family’ also reported.

However, climate change impacts across a far wider range of society and economy than just major infrastructure and utilities. Reporting by government departments, local authorities (responsible for a wide range of activities which can be impacted by flood, heat, drought or storm), healthcare and agricultural sectors was scant to non-existent and there’s little evidence of that changing in the third reporting round.

Following reporting, and after the CCRA, government is required under section 58 of the Act to “lay programmes before Parliament” setting out:

-The government’s objectives in relation to adaptation to climate change

-Its proposals and policies for meeting these objectives, and

-Its timescales for introducing these proposals and policies.

This is known as the National Adaptation Programme (NAP).

Failure in adaptation policy ambition

In its 2019 report to Parliament on progress in preparing for climate change the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) noted that despite the statutory requirements relating to climate change adaptation, the NAP was incomplete, missing actions relating to 21 of the 56 risks identified by the CCRA.

The CCC observed that “Government has failed to increase adaptation policy ambition and implementation through its latest National Adaptation Programme - despite the increasing urgency of addressing the risks from climate change.”

It went on to say that “Over the past ten years, there has been an erosion of the governance and coordination of adaptation policy within the UK Government” pointing out that in 2009, the then Prime Minister had asked 16 government departments to prepare detailed climate adaptation plans, something not repeated since.

CCC also referenced the closure of a range of adaptation support services in years to 2017 and the hollowing out of resource within Defra dedicated to climate change adaptation.

Turbocharging a cross-government approach

The recent floods have laid bare – not for the first time – the exposure of extensive parts of the UK to climate change impacts. Bodies such as the Environment Agency and emergency services have responded as they always do – stretched but highly committed. And communities have shown amazing resilience in the face of harrowing conditions.

We are an island positioned to take the full force of an increasingly energised jet stream and the Atlantic storms it powers our way. And increasingly intense summer downpours, allied to expanding hard-surfaced urban areas are causing more flash flooding.

But it’s not just floods. Recent years have seen heatwaves resulting in higher death rates, and freeze-thaw water pipe bursts associated with the ‘beast from the east’ impact 200,000 people.

What is abundantly clear is that government has not been putting climate adaptation and resilience at the heart of everything we do, despite clear evidence from its statutory climate adviser that this is needed.

This must change and if Michael Gove’s words are true, that this is indeed a top government priority for COP26, we should see evidence of this in the coming months.

As a Herefordshire County Council representative said of recent flooding: “after the floods have subsided and the lessons have been learned, more needs to be done in having this strategic approach and direction as to how best local authorities and agencies cope with this situation going forward… I would welcome a strategy from government.”

A new flood risk management strategy for England is due from the Environment Agency by summer, alongside a new policy statement from Defra. But responsibilities relating to flooding run wider than these organisations, and for other climate change impacts they run wider still.

This is a case where action on climate adaptation and resilience is needed right across government, particularly in areas such as housing, health and transport. Michael Gove, with his knowledge of Defra and current position at the head of the Cabinet Office could play a decisive role in ensuring the trajectory set in 2009 with cross-government adaptation reporting is rediscovered and turbocharged.

Alastair Chisholm's headshot

Alastair Chisholm, Director of Policy - CIWEM

contact Alastair at Alastair.chisholm@ciwem.org

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