LONDON -- The United Kingdom is woefully unprepared for the inevitable impacts of climate change, despite efforts to curb carbon emissions. It must quickly do far more to prepare for impacts on water, weather, resources and health, a key government advisory body said today.
The adaptation subcommittee of the independent Committee on Climate Change, created by the 2008 Climate Change Act, said a lot of preparatory work has already been done, but there are scant signs of concrete actions actually being taken, despite the fact that there is clear evidence Britain's climate is already changing.
"The U.K. must start acting now to prepare for climate change. If we wait, it will be too late," said adaptation subcommittee Chairman John Krebs. "It is not necessarily about spending more but about spending smart and investing to save. If we get it right, we can save money in the short term and avoid large extra costs in the future. The time has come to move from talking to acting."
The report notes that the problems at home would not just stem from local or regional climate change effects. Across the world, the impacts would alter trade flows and population movements, and with them, political networks.
The timing of the report, the first of an annual series, is in part designed as a clarion call to the United Kingdom's new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to keep its nerve on climate change action when it issues a major spending review next month.
Facing crippling debts inherited from the banking crisis and the global recession, the government, which took power in May after 13 years of Labour rule, has set its sights on massive spending cuts in a bid to quickly bring the budget deficit down.
But the report runs strenuously in the opposite direction. It says adaptation should not take the place of efforts to cap and cut climate-changing carbon emissions -- the United Kingdom has a legal goal to cut them by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Up to now, adaptation had been the poor relation and urgently needed to be bolstered, the committee said.
An attempt to spur government planning
Even if global talks on peaking and starting serious reductions of carbon emissions within the next decade do come to fruition, there remains a 50-50 chance that average temperatures would rise by 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the end of the century, with resulting major impacts on water, ecosystems, food, human settlements and health, the report says.
It says average temperatures in central England have risen by 1 degree Celsius since 1970 -- and by 0.8 degrees in Scotland and Northern Ireland since 1980. Meanwhile, seasons have been arriving on average 11 days earlier since the 1970s.
Seas have been rising, coastlines eroding, species moving steadily north, and heat waves becoming more frequent, and there have been more intense rainfall events. Insured losses from weather-related events currently cost the United Kingdom £1.5 billion a year on average, and events like the 2003 heat wave that killed 2,000 people in the country could become the norm by the end of the century.
"By planning ahead and taking timely adaptation action, the UK could halve the costs and damages from moderate amounts of warming. Forward planning may also allow the UK to take advantage of opportunities, for example developing new products and services for a warmer climate," the report says.
It says the government has to set clear goals on adaptation; provide timely and practical information on why and how to go about meeting them; and ensure that climate change adaptation is integral to all planning, infrastructure, resource and building design decisions and relevant policies.
For instance, new buildings have to be designed to be able to withstand weather extremes like heat waves and floods as well as minimize water usage, while work needs to be done to climate-proof as far as possible existing buildings.
Also, new developments should also not be sited on likely future floodplains or risk simply shifting the problem onto another area. Energy, water, transport, waste and communications systems must also have climate change resilience built into their construction and locations, the report says.
A note of caution to budget-cutters
But given that natural disasters will occur either with greater intensity or frequency or both because of climate change, emergency planning has to have the probabilities and likely consequences built in, specifically to reduce the impacts and ensure continuing care for the most vulnerable groups.
At the same time, business continuity plans should be drawn up to try to make sure that inevitable disruptions could be minimized as far as possible, the report adds.
There have already been reports that the government is contemplating backing away from some big-ticket renewable energy projects, such as a multibillion-pound major tidal barrage across the mouth of the River Severn -- seen by some as crucial to meeting steep renewable energy commitments but by others as environmental hooliganism.
Ministerial budgets are already being cut to the bone in what some observers describe as a desperate slash-and-burn exercise, with extra spending on adaptation well down the list of priorities.
Given the almost total silence from the government on green issues in recent months, there are fears that other climate change-related projects could be in the firing line, despite declarations from Prime Minister David Cameron from the outset that his government intends to be the greenest ever.
"Climate change will have a massive impact on us all, so it is essential that the coalition takes urgent steps to protect us from its impacts, while pulling out all the stops to prevent more extreme temperature rises," said climate campaigner Craig Bennett of environmental group Friends of the Earth.
"Failure to invest in climate action would be a dangerous and expensive mistake, leaving a far bigger bill for future generations to pick up. Ministers mustn't shortchange the climate when the spending review is unveiled next month," he added.