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What are the Climate Change Risks Faced by the UK?

In this article we’ll explore the climate change risks faced by the UK, and look at what the UK Government can do to adapt to these risks.
Green News
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With global temperatures rising and the effects of climate change being felt across the world, no country will be left untouched. The UK has already experienced increased incidences of flooding, hotter summers, and more intense heat waves. Unfortunately, even if we do everything we can to reduce emissions and to keep warming under 1.5℃ (vs. pre industrial levels) the impacts of climate change will still be felt for years to come, which means that the UK must build resilience and adapt to the effects of global warming in addition to taking steps to curb further emissions and environmental decline. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore the climate change risks faced by the UK, and look at what the UK Government can do to adapt to these risks. 

🇬🇧 Climate change in the UK

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges the world faces and global heating has already begun to cause irreversible harm to our planet. Nowadays, there is no absence of scientific evidence as to the impacts we’ll face if emissions continue to rise and temperatures are not kept under 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels.  

The UK Government recognises the challenge ahead and has already committed to a number of ambitious climate change targets - most notably its ambition of achieving net zero by 2050. However, it also recognises that even if it achieves such targets, the UK will still feel the effects of global warming in coming decades. As such, the UK government acknowledges that it must also work to adapt to climate change risks. 

In order to prepare for this changing world, the UK Government, under the Climate Change Act 2008 must produce a Climate Change Risk Assessment for the UK every 5 years. This is designed to assess the biggest climate change risks facing the UK, and to provide direction and advice to the UK Government so that they can more effectively set priorities for national climate change adaptation. 

Let’s take a look at the UK’s Climate Change Risk Assessments in a bit more detail.

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Climate Change Act 2008

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act the UK Government must publish a Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) every five years. This is designed to help it set its main priorities for climate change adaptation. 

The Climate Change Risk Assessment is commissioned by the UK Government and based on statutory advice provided by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the Independent Assessment of UK Climate Change

The resulting CCRA is made up of an Evidence Report and accompanying Government Report. The Evidence Report is independently researched and contains technical reports and summaries that have been prepared by leading scientists and experts, these reports have also been analysed through an extensive peer review and consultation processes prior to publication. The UK Government then uses this Evidence Report to inform its Government Report and to establish its main priorities and actions for climate change adaptation. 

The first Climate Change Risk Assessment was published in 2012, the second assessment was released in 2017, and the third assessment was recently completed in 2022.

Let’s look at what these reports encompassed in a bit more detail:

Climate Change Risk Assessment 1

The CCRA1 Evidence Report was the first report of its kind in the UK. Published in 2012, it looked at over 700 potential impacts on climate change in the UK before narrowing this down to 100 different types of impacts over 11 sectors (agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem services, built environment, business, industry and services, energy, floods and coastal erosion, forestry, health, marine and fisheries, transport, and water). The Evidence Report evaluated how likely the potential consequences were in each of these areas and also established the urgency of actions needed to address them. 

Based on this Evidence Report the UK Government then set out 5 key priorities across the following sectors: agriculture and forestry, business, industry and services, health and wellbeing, the natural environment, buildings and infrastructure.

Climate Change Risk Assessment 2

The CCRA2 looked at a much smaller list of just 56 priority risks, and focused on specific actions. The resulting Government Report outlined 6 priority areas, namely: flooding and coastal change, health and wellbeing from high temperatures, water shortages, risks to natural capital, food production and trade, pests, diseases and invasive non-native species.  

The difference in approach between CCRA1 and CCRA2 reflects the increasing amount of climate change evidence which meant that the report was able to be much more targeted and specific.

Climate Change Risk Assessment 3

The third CCRA was published in January of 2022 and set out the latest evidence on the risks and opportunities to the UK from climate change. The report identified 61 different climate risks and opportunities and narrowed this down to 8 risk areas that the UK Government should prioritise for action, these are: 

  • Risks to the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species from multiple hazards
  • Risks to soil health and increased flooding and drought
  • Risks to natural carbon stores and sequestration from multiple hazards
  • Risks to crops, livestock and commercial trees from multiple climate hazards
  • Risks to supply of food, goods and vital services due to climate-related collapse of supply chains and distribution networks
  • Risks to people and the economy from climate-related failure of the power system
  • Risks to human health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in homes and other buildings
  • Multiple risks to the UK from climate change impacts overseas 

These 8 risks represent the most pressing climate change issues facing the UK today, though the report also pointed out that there is an increasing gap generally when it comes to the level of risk that the UK faces when compared to the level of action taken to adapt to these risks. The report concluded that the UK Government has not adequately kept pace with the worsening impacts of climate change.

What are the main risks identified by the Climate Change Risk Assessment?

As part of the CCRA, a technical report was also published which outlines the latest observations of, and future projections for the changing climate in the UK. This updated technical report is based on developments in climate change modelling since the 2017 CCRA, and gives a more accurate and complete picture of the impact of climate change in the UK. So what did the report find are the biggest climate change risks facing the UK today? 

Human-induced climate change is more apparent

The world continues to warm, with effects becoming increasingly apparent and more easily identifiable as resulting from human activity. When it comes to the UK specifically, the clearest signs of the impact of global warming are temperature and sea level rises. There is also increasing evidence that average rainfall in the UK is increasing, this is particularly the case for the west coast of the UK, and rainfall recorded in winter months. 

What remains unclear from research is whether or not the UK is becoming increasingly stormy. The report identified that this should be an area of focus when it comes to the next CCRA. 

New weather records

The UK is reporting unprecedented temperatures and rainfall, and records in this area are being broken more frequently. Extreme weather related events are more likely to occur even in today's climate, though this is expected to increase as we see the worsening effects of climate change in the coming decades. 

Rising temperatures

The Climate Change Risk Assessment Technical Report projects that the UK will experience increased temperatures until at least the middle of this century under all climate change scenarios (ie. even if global temperatures can be limited to less than a 1.5℃ rise). However, the extent and pattern of UK climate change will depend more on specific regional climate and weather responses as opposed to global greenhouse gas emission levels.

child at beach sitting in the water

Extreme weather events

Extreme weather events and higher sea levels are projected to be much more frequent and severe in the second half of this century. For example, by 2080 it is predicted that 40℃ + temperatures will be experienced as often as 32℃ + temperatures are experienced today. 

In addition to more frequent weather events, it is also believed that the events will be more extreme in nature. Meteorological, agricultural and hydrological droughts will become more intense presenting issues for UK water resource management. Winters are also likely to become more mild, with a decrease in the number of days of frost.

Hotter and wetter summers

The report predicts significant reductions in rainfall over the summer months, particularly over England. This means that drier summers will be more likely, however, research also outlined that wetter summers are also a possibility. While the overall number of wet days is likely to reduce, the intensity of the rainfall will be more extreme.

Mobile, cyclonic winter weather systems

Mobile, cyclonic weather systems will begin to dominate winter weather in the UK. This is more likely to affect western areas of the country with increased daily rainfall, flooding and stronger winds and waves likely. This also increases the risk of atmospheric river events resulting in significant rainfall which makes flooding and landslides more likely. The more mountainous regions of the UK will be particularly vulnerable to this risk.

storm with lightening

Sea levels rising

There’s no way around it - net zero requires significant investment. In fact, the Climate Change Committee estSea levels have already risen by around 16cm since 1900 (and by 5cm since 1990 alone) and if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory it is estimated that UK sea levels could rise by 1.4 - 1.6 metres by 2100. This presents a big issue for coastal communities around the UK, and is a significant threat to the UK economy.

What does this mean for the UK?

The Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA3) outlines a wide range of risks to the UK as a result of climate change. Particular areas of concern include risk of flooding and coastal change, water scarcity and water management issues, extreme heat with increased risk of drought and forest fires. These climate events will have a significant impact on the UK economy, the health and livelihood of UK citizens, and the UK’s natural environment. 

Unfortunately, even on the most ambitious pathways for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect to see continued warming in the coming decades, this means that even if we are able to reach net zero emissions and keep the global temperature rise to under 1.5℃, the effects of climate change will still be felt, and the UK government will have to deal with these risks through adaptation and mitigation measures.

As it stands, the gap between the level of climate change risk that the UK faces and the level of adaptation underway has widened, however the CCRA report highlighted the fact that the UK Government has the capacity and resources to be able to respond effectively to these risks. The sooner that action is taken the better - prolonging the process will only result in higher costs and a more significant impact on the UK population and environment.  

The Climate Change Risk Assessment report highlighted a number of top priority risks and adaptation strategies to help focus the UK Government as they look to tackle the ‘adaptation deficit’. Let’s take a look at what sort of measures were proposed by the report:

Make buildings more suitable for higher temperatures

In 2022, almost 4,000 excess deaths were recorded in England and Wales during periods of extreme heat, and this is an issue that is set to grow as temperatures in the UK continue to rise. However, it is an area in which adaptive policies are notably absent, therefore the CCRA outlines a number of measures that should be adopted by the UK Government to better prepare for this growing issue: 

  • The update of building regulations to address overheating in new and refurbished homes through the use of passive cooling measures (for example, reflective surfaces and green cover). 
  • Guidance and incentives to deal with overheating in existing UK homes. 
  • Coordination of decarbonisation and home adaptation policies.
building under construction

Address overseas climate change

In addition to the immediate effects of climate change experienced in the UK itself, the UK is also vulnerable to impacts of climate change overseas. For example the effects of extreme weather events and other climate related impacts overseas have the potential to disrupt food supplies to the UK, increase migration, and also make violent conflicts more likely. The report suggests that: 

  • The UK Government should not only respond to overseas climate change related disasters but should also work towards reducing underlying vulnerabilities. 
  • The UK should commit to further adaptation financing to help developing nations. 
  • The UK should develop a resilience strategy.

Make the UK's power network resilient

As the UK Government works towards decarbonising the energy sector, we can expect up to 65% of the UK’s energy supply to come from electricity by 2050 (vs. 20% today). This means that the UK will be more vulnerable to power outages which could be caused by climate-related events such as flooding and storms. The CCRA recommends that the UK Government: 

  • Review and develop an electricity system risk assessment. 
  • Climate resilience should be built into future infrastructure and energy strategies.

Preserve carbon stores

Peatlands and forests in the UK are an essential part of reducing carbon emissions as they store significant volumes of carbon dioxide. These areas must be protected and degraded areas restored.

forest trees

Strengthen supply chains

Climate change effects such as droughts, flooding and heat waves can result in severe disruption to global supply chains. The UK Government can potentially minimise these risks by: 

  • Adopting adaptation policies in the UK’s plans for growth and it’s green finance strategies
  • The UK should look into options to grow fruit and vegetables domestically wherever possible.

Protect UK agriculture

Climate change presents a risk to UK crops, livestock and commercial tree forests, however the report was critical of the fact that as it stands the UK Government has not adopted any policies to introduce climate resilience into the sector. It suggested that: 

  • New, more climate resilient varieties of crops, livestock and trees should be considered. 
  • Better management or water and soil conservation should be prioritised through changes to land management policies. 
  • Better forecasts and land-use assessments should be prioritised to enable land managers to more effectively plan and adapt to climate change.

Support biodiversity

The UK is experiencing a general decline in its biodiversity, and while the UK Government has prioritised preventing further deterioration through its 25 Year Environment Plan, the CCRA criticised a lack of evidence to show that it is being effectively implemented. It proposed measures that could strengthen the UK’s action in this area, these includes: 

  • Incorporating adaptation into UK conservation planning.
  • More effective monitoring of pests, diseases, and invasive non-native species.
  • Reducing flooding and extreme heat through nature-based solutions.
fox in the countryside

Improve soil health

Climate change brings with it more intense rainfall in winter and conditions of drought over the summer which can present a challenge to the health of UK soil, which ultimately decreases crop yields. In order to prevent the worst effects of this, the CCRA advises the UK Government to: 

  • Invest in national soil-monitoring systems. 
  • Incentivise land owners to improve soil health. 
  • Incentivise precision farming techniques to minimise soil pollution and erosion.

👀 Looking forward

The UK Government is falling behind in terms of adaptation strategies that deal with the impacts of climate change in the UK. However, as global warming increases and the impacts of climate change are felt more severely at home in the UK and overseas, the UK Government will have no choice but to deal with the effects. The economic costs and the human toll will only increase the longer this is put off and so the UK Government needs to act now to try to mitigate and adapt to the most severe effects of climate change. 

Thankfully climate change research and expertise is growing and expanding year on year which means that more accurate predictions can be made and also more effective/targeted actions can be taken to deal with climate change risks. The Climate Change Risk Assessment released in 2022 is the most up to date, and most accurate report on the threat posed to the UK by climate change. The report also makes suggestions for specific and impactful measures that can be adopted to help the UK prepare for the worst effects of climate change. Now, it is up to the UK Government and policy makers to follow the advice and take meaningful strides to future-proof the UK against the impacts of climate change.

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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