Flooding reminds politicians that there are two sides to the climate change coin 

Energy & Climate Change, Flooding, Natural Environment

Terry Fuller, CIWEM Chief Executive

Every time there is major flooding the common and understandable cry is that defences should have been better, warnings should have come sooner, emergency response should’ve been quicker, or access to insurance should be better.

Flooding can be very complex, and the truth is, solutions are rarely this simple. Floods can be caused by a range of things: storms coinciding with high tides in coastal areas; prolonged rain causing rivers to burst their banks; saturated ground causing groundwater flooding or short, very local but intense storms causing flash flooding almost anywhere.

Because of this, a wide range of Risk Management Agencies – not just the Environment Agency – have responsibility for managing flood risk.

It’s those front-line agencies who are subject to judgment during major events and then centre of the inevitable political debate that follows. This almost always focuses on funding, with annual government expenditure the prime focus. Expenditure on flood risk management in England has increased over the past 15 years, despite suffering through austerity-driven reductions, it rose after major flood events, and now fluctuates at around £800m per year.

When the General Election was called for December, commentators said darkness and weather could play a real factor in campaigns, and so it has. The recent flooding in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire prompted differing responses from party leaders but the two main opposition parties quickly pledged to increase spending on flood risk management to £1bn or more a year.

It’s unlikely to be coincidental that this sum is the average annual level of investment the Environment Agency identified as necessary to keep flood risk no higher than current levels for the next 50 years.

Is maintaining current levels of risk what the public really wants though? Responses to flood events tend to call for higher levels of protection in the future, not the same. And the Met Office have said that climate change has made the succession of winter storms that wrought flooding havoc across the country in 2013/14 seven times more likely to occur.

Can we achieve better despite climate change? Almost certainly yes, but only if we elevate climate adaptation and resilience to the same profile as decarbonisation, invest more and sharpen a whole range of policies and spending rules so they can target flooding across all its complex causes.

Assurances made on the campaign trail that any climate change factor of recent flooding is being tackled through the Net Zero emissions targets now enshrined in law miss the point. There are two very different sides to the climate change coin. One – decarbonisation – is the focus of growing political attention. The other – adaptation – has tended to pique political interest when major flooding or heatwaves occur, before rapidly receding with the waters or temperature. This must change.

Declarations of climate emergencies by a huge range of public and private bodies over the past year illustrate the growing concern across society. But whatever we achieve as a nation on decarbonisation, we still rely on other countries doing similar to stand a chance of staying within manageable levels of climate change – about 1.5oC as proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even in the most optimistic of scenarios we are still locked into an amount of climate change well above what we have experienced so far, as a result of historical emissions.

Many measures to adapt to climate change and increase our resilience can deliver other important benefits that have been neglected and under-invested in over recent decades, and are vital to building a prosperous, healthy, productive nation. Not only helping to restore our wildlife, provide improved access to green space, which is widely understood to benefit mental health and physical wellbeing, but also cleaning up polluted air and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Going back to flooding, there is a growing appreciation that just building higher conventional defences isn’t enough or indeed desirable. They will always play a critical role in the range of different measures needed to manage flood risk but other measures well outside the immediate control of bodies like the Environment Agency must come into play.

Government planning policies must drive the integration of semi-natural features which soak up and store flood water at the surface but out of harm’s way. So called sustainable drainage systems – planted ‘rain gardens’ in streets, green roofs or temporary ponds in communal open spaces – can store rainwater in urban areas so that it doesn’t either cause local flash flooding or flow too quickly into drains then rivers, raising flood risk to people downstream. And they can clean air, reduce the impact of heatwaves and improve the look of our urban places to boot.

Elsewhere farmers can be encouraged and financially supported to manage their land in a way which will help lower carbon emissions, recover wildlife and reduce flood risk. Extensive tree planting and managing land for temporary flood storage, driven through a forward-thinking new replacement to the European Common Agricultural Policy subsidy regime would improve our landscape, whilst delivering necessary carbon reduction and improved biodiversity.

So, pledges of £1 billion a year are very encouraging. Flooding by definition never comes at a good time, but its occurrence in a general election campaign could achieve increases in investment that would otherwise not necessarily be seen, and ultimately benefit those communities affected this time, as well as others at risk.

But £1bn isn’t enough. Other funding streams and areas of government policy need to focus more intently on climate adaptation to add considerable extra value to flood protection budgets. We also need longer-term certainty attached to budgets so that the organisations who use them can plan properly and deliver defences and other measures most efficiently. It’s not necessarily always about more, but better.


Terry Fuller is Chief Executive of CIWEM and has 30 years’ experience in flood and coastal risk management.

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