Government’s climate adaptation and resilience approach slammed by two of its advisors in one day 

Energy & Climate Change, Flooding, Management & Regulation

After new commentaries call out the government's approach to climate change adaptation, Alastair Chisholm agrees that things need to improve, and quickly.

In damming commentaries, both the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) describe the government’s approach and ambition on responding to the impacts of climate change as falling “far short”, “not working” and “not meeting the scale of the challenge”.

Critical: The Climate Change Committee's assessment of NAP3, and the National Infrastructure Committee's report on reducing the risk of surface water flooding.

National Adaptation Programme (NAP) is produced by the Government every five years, following a preceding Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) in a cycle set out under the Climate Change Act 2008.

It may be possible to argue that the Act’s decarbonisation drivers – a programme of legally-binding ‘carbon budgets’ the government must meet – have been moderately effective in reducing emissions. However, its other key aspect – adaptation planning – has failed to achieve similar traction.

Following drought and record-breaking heat in 2022 and similarly extreme rainfall and flooding across the last year and more, it is becoming clear extreme weather is with us now and will become more extreme over coming years and decades.

Not working

But three NAP cycles down the track, there is still no effective strategic plan to ensure infrastructure, homes, farmland, nature and more are designed and delivered to be climate future-proof. Indeed, the NIC in its recent National Infrastructure Assessment warned without a dramatic shift in resilience standards £400bn of new infrastructure would be built un-resilient to climate change impacts by 2030.

In its report today, the CCC says that the third NAP continues to fail in setting a clear vision for what an adapted UK should look like, addresses only 40 per cent of the urgent risks identified in the CCRA and basically says whilst the third NAP is a slight improvement on the previous two, the approach isn’t working and needs a refresh in the next Parliament.

Root causes

CIWEM has been perennially critical of the data-gathering exercise leading into NAP (known as the ‘adaptation reporting power’) being voluntary for all but core infrastructure operating bodies. So whilst ports, aviation, rail, water, forestry and environmental agencies respond, for huge swathes of the economy this is discretionary.

Consequently, many of those organisations at the forefront of having to manage the impacts of climate change – particularly local authorities, health authorities and sectors such as agriculture and housing – largely do not feed in. So their needs, perspectives and opportunities to build resilience are missed from any strategic plan which may be developed.

And a fundamental exacerbator of this is the resource squeeze across health and local government currently, meaning that councils battling to stay solvent have little or no staff equipped to engage meaningfully with the process. Without statutory requirements to engage and report, councils will deprioritise anything which isn’t a core duty for them. It just all feels very inadequate.

Scale of the challenge

An ongoing concern has been that with adaptation nested within Defra administratively, it doesn’t get the traction across other parts of government particularly those concerned with development and housing. This point is made again by the CCC. And whilst government may argue that it has reached more widely this time round, its comments focused on flood defence and water resource investment miss the point that adaptation is about what’s going on elsewhere, in housing policy and standards, transport, utilities and so on.

Of course flooding and drought are right up there at the top of the risk assessment. So the reflections by the NIC, following the government’s slow response to NIC’s report published back in 2022 on surface water flood risk (the form of flooding predicted to increase most dramatically with climate change) was similarly damning. Commissioner Jim Hall said: “Sadly, government’s plan of action does not meet the scale of the challenge, and lacks the urgency required to meet the threat.

That these are government’s formal, expert advisors who have been proving evidence for many years on how climate change must be coped with, commenting in unison on discreet but highly related issues tells of the level of failure to step up to the mark by policymakers.

As the CCC said, this must change fundamentally in the next Parliament. Our food security, infrastructure operability and for some, their lives, depend on it.

Alastair Chisholm
Director of policy, CIWEM

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