Climate change: why is adaption key?

Charlie McNelly & Rob Franklin explain how local authorities can embark on their net zero journeys – based around helping communities adapt to the impacts of climate change

As global temperatures continue to rise, the need for both national and international action on adaptation, as well as mitigation, is now clear. Increasing temperatures are resulting in unprecedented climate risks across the globe, evident most recently across North America, where record breaking heat waves have resulted in hundreds of heat-related deaths. Alongside this, devastating flash floods across western Germany and Belgium have highlighted the growing risk of extreme weather events, with Chancellor Angela Merkel drawing a direct link to climate change, and calling upon Germany to re-double efforts.

Across the UK, rising temperatures are expected to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme heat and precipitation events  The impacts associated with these extremes have recently been felt across the UK with flash-flooding across both Somerset and London causing damage to roads and homes, in addition to widespread transport disruption due to flooded roads and railways.

Given the growing risks, there is a real need for effective national plans and policies that adequately consider the importance of adaptation for individuals and communities. However, national policies to address adaptation have been slow in coming. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recently completed an Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk, setting out and prioritising climate change risks and opportunities across the UK. The assessment indicates that there is a growing gap between the severity of risks that can be expected from climate change and the level of adaptation action currently taking place across the UK.

The assessment also recognises the UK government’s intrinsic role in facilitating good adaptation action and planning, including the important role that local authorities can play in facilitating this action. While local authorities should continue to review central government policies relating to adaptation, the need to take immediate, short-term action is clear. This presents local authorities with an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on adaptation and leverage local knowledge to progress locally-appropriate solutions.

Importance of local authorities in progressing adaptation   
Local authorities are key influencers across their regions and can lead by example to galvanise progress on issues across business and local communities. Actions to support adaptation should therefore be considered alongside other economic, social and environmental issues that are being experienced across a local area.

Through the implementation of dedicated plans and policies, local authorities can provide a crucial framework, as well as resources, to support local communities and businesses with managing climate-related risks and impacts. For example, councils could include requirements for sustainable urban drainage solutions (SuDS) to be prioritised in new developments, and the potential for summer overheating of buildings to be carefully considered through their Local Plan.

In addition, local authorities have the responsibility of ensuring that assets in their area are protected, valued and used sustainability in order to deliver a net gain in local natural capital. Studies have shown that nature can play an important role in adapting our built environment, with nature-based solutions providing urban cooling and flood management as well as a range of other benefits for health and biodiversity. Managing climate risks effectively can therefore help to deliver a myriad of co-benefits across a local area, whilst also supporting internal corporate objectives that may have been set by individual councils.

Key actions that local authorities can take on adaptation
There are a multitude of actions that local authorities can take to act on adaptation at the local level. The specific actions that are taken will vary depending on a variety of localised factors including actual and projected levels of climate risk, overall capacity and resource available to act on adaptation, alongside wider priorities of the local area. The following recommendations are therefore not exhaustive, but they can help steer the development of initial actions that support adaptation across a local authority:  

  1. Develop robust corporate plans and policies – Policies that appropriately recognise the role and importance of adaptation in shaping local decision making should be developed e.g. local authorities can consider setting a dedicated resilience target, which sits alongside organisational mitigation targets to facilitate the tracking of progress on adaptation, and ensure that any decisions made (e.g. project or policy development) align to pre-determined targets on adaptation.
  2. Engage with local communities and organisations to leverage local expertise – Local authorities should work closely with stakeholders and business leaders to develop local partnerships which focus on developing a coordinated and localised response to adaptation. Involving key stakeholders in the decision-making process has been proven to be an effective way through which robust adaptive action can be achieved at the local level.
  3. Develop local measures which integrate both adaptation and mitigation – for example, through the development of localised green infrastructure. Policies which seek to increase and protect the levels of green space across an area can not only help to offset the urban heat island effect but can also assist with flood risk management and protection of green corridors, all of which helps to add value and enhances the adaptive capacity of both human and natural systems.
  4. Adaptation capacity building and skills development – Local authorities should enhance the capacity of officers and stakeholders to appropriately act on adaptation. Councils should identify relevant teams/departments that are going to be vital to any response to climate adaptation and enhance their knowledge of the importance of climate adaptation. Local authorities should also continue to seek further guidance from national governments on the appropriate frameworks that should be adopted relating to adaptation.
  5. Adaptation in action: Working with Hampshire County Council

The Carbon Trust have been working closely with Hampshire County Council (HCC) to support the its response to adaptation, which forms a key part of its climate emergency declaration. HCC is one of the few local authorities in the UK to have officially set a resilience target, which states that the council will build resilience to the impacts associated with a two-degree Celsius rise in temperature across Hampshire.

Through working with the council, we have been able to explore a number of key themes relating to adaptation that will enable robust action at the local level. One key theme relates to the ‘frontloaded’ nature of adaptation i.e. that greater investment now translates into reduced economic costs in the future.

We have supported HCC in calculating the economic cost of adaptation inaction across the county, seeking to quantify the costs associated with extreme rainfall and heatwaves on buildings, alongside the impact events of this nature may have on labour productivity and mortality. Understanding these future costs today therefore helps to build a strong business case for investment in the adaptation interventions that are needed today.

Outlook on adaptation across the UK
Local authorities should closely consider key outcomes of the upcoming COP26 negotiations, which will be held in Glasgow in November. Adaptation is listed as one of the key upfront goals of the discussions, where countries will be looking to reach an agreement on the key adaptive measures and policies that will be required in order to protect both communities and natural habitats. This will ensure that discussions around adaptation are at the centre of negotiations at COP26, which brings welcome visibility to a crucial, and occasionally overlooked, aspect of climate action.

The need for strong, robust action on adaptation has been highlighted in the CCC’s recent progress report on adapting to climate change in the UK. The CCC highlight that action on adaptation is now falling behind levels of increasing climate risk, meaning that the UK is now underprepared for the expected impacts associated with a changing climate. A number of key recommendations are provided to the UK government on key actions to adequately manage levels of risk across all sectors.

We recommend that local authorities should monitor the government’s response to this progress report, in addition to any agreements that are developed in response to negotiations at COP26.

The importance of adaptation is critical – this is a time for action on adaptation and local authorities can play a crucial role in delivering this.

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