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‘Adapt or die’ in face of climate crisis, warns Environment Agency

With COP26 just weeks away, the Environment Agency has issued a stark warning about current approaches to tackling the climate emergency and called for increased focus on adaptation.

The agency’s Living better with a changing climate report, published yesterday (13 October), insists that adaptation – becoming resilient to the effects of a changing climate – is just as important as mitigation.

The report warns of more extreme weather leading to increased flooding and drought, sea level rises of up to 78cm by the 2080s, and public water supplies needing more than 3.4bn extra litres of water per day by 2050.

The agency has urged governments, businesses and society to embrace and invest in adaptation, rather than living with the costs of inaction.

As part of its focus on better preparation for the impacts of climate change, the Environment Agency is working with government, business and communities, as well as delivering a £5.2bn programme of new flood and coastal defences over the next six years.

While the report welcomes the UK Government’s focus on adaptation as well as mitigation, and the fact that climate adaptation is one of the COP26 summit’s four key goals, it urges more action at a global level to protect lives and livelihoods that are at risk.

Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “The climate crisis is global, but its impacts are in your village, your shop, your home. Adaptation action needs to be integral to government, businesses and communities too and people will soon question why it isn’t – especially when it is much cheaper to invest early in climate resilience than to live with the costs of inaction.”

Howard Boyd added that while mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation, preparing for climate shocks, that will save millions of lives. “Choosing one over the other on the basis of a simple either/or calculation is like telling a bird it only needs one wing to fly,” she said.

“With that in mind, it is deeply worrying that adaptation is in danger of being grievously undercooked at COP26. Not by the UK Government, but by the world at large.

“Significant climate impacts are inevitable. We can successfully tackle the climate emergency if we do the right things, but we are running out of time to implement effective adaptation measures. Our thinking must change faster than the climate.”

Climate crisis

Even with a 2°C temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels, key projections within the report include:

  • Winter rainfall is expected to increase by approximately 6% by the 2050s and by 8% by the 2080s, compared to a 1981-2000 baseline.

  • Summer rainfall is expected to decrease by approximately 15% by the 2050s compared to a 1981-2000 baseline.

  • London’s sea level is expected to rise by between approximately 23cm by the 2050s and 45cm by the 2080s.

  • River flows will be more extreme. Peak flows are expected to be up to 27% higher in the 2050s, while in the summer months river flows could be 82% lower by as soon as 2050.

  • Public water supplies are expected to require more than 3.4bn extra litres of water per day if no action is taken before 2050.

In July, extreme rainfall and subsequent floods engulfed parts of Germany and caused a tragic loss of life and significant damage to more than 600km of railway track and 80 stations as well as affecting roads and bridges, and putting some dams at risk of collapse.

“Some 200 people died in this summer’s flooding in Germany. That will happen in this country sooner or later, however high we build our flood defences, unless we also make the places where we live, work and travel resilient to the effects of the more violent weather the climate emergency is bringing. It is adapt or die. With the right approach we can be safer and more prosperous. So let’s prepare, act and survive,” said Howard Boyd.

The Environment Agency report anticipates London’s sea level will rise by between approximately 23cm by the 2050s and 45cm by the 2080s.

Reality check The Living better with a changing climate report sets out five climate “reality checks” to make the case for urgent action on adaptation:

  1. The Environment Agency alone cannot protect everyone from increasing flood and coastal risks: rising sea levels and extreme winter rainfall will mean it will not be technically, socially, and economically viable to protect every community. Instead, alongside constructing and maintaining defences, the focus should be on helping communities to learn to live with risk, minimise damage, and return to normal life quickly.

  2. Climate change makes it harder to ensure clean and plentiful water: existing issues with water stress will be exacerbated by climate change bringing altered temperature and rainfall patterns. Measures to tackle these pressures are underway, but a strategic approach to water management and faster progress on improvements are needed.

  3. Environmental regulation is not yet ready for a changing climate: climate change is increasing the impact of environmental incidents, for example lower river levels means pollutants diffuse slower and have a greater impact. It is vital that environmental policy and legislation keeps pace with the escalating challenge to allow the Environment Agency and other regulators to protect the environment.

  4. Ecosystems cannot adapt as fast as the climate is changing: industrialisation and urbanisation have left the UK as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and climate change means wildlife in England will continue to be altered. It is crucial to recognise importance of natural ecosystems in supporting life through health and wellbeing. Nature must be the essential foundation of development, rather than being seen as an impediment.

  5. There will be more and worse environmental incidents: both natural and man-made environmental incidents will be made worse by climate change. This will place an increased burden on emergency response and divert resources from other activities.

(Credit Nadine Buddoo.

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