The government must take urgent action to ensure the UK can cope with the inevitable impacts of global warming, according to the Climate Change Committee.
They say that immediacy is needed to deal with the threat of overheating in homes, power cuts and damage to nature, crops and food supplies.
Efforts to cut emissions to net zero by 2050, which require measures such as planting trees and conserving peatlands to store carbon, will fail without action to help nature adapt to a changing climate, a new report from the committee said.
The eight key areas that the committee believes should be tackled within the next two years are:
Risks to land and freshwater habitats and species:
Climate change threatens wildlife at a time when it is already in decline, with increased temperatures, drought and wildfire among the biggest risks, and the UK uplands are particularly vulnerable.
Action is needed to reduce pollution and create suitable habitats for species to continue to live, such as shading rivers using trees, helping wildlife to move, for example with fish passes, and improving the resilience of habitat with mixed planting and removing material that risks wildfires.
Risks to soil health from increased floods and drought:
Soils are a key natural asset which provide foods, store carbon and are a home to wildlife, but they are at risk from erosion and damage from heavier rainfall and drought.
Healthy soils are also needed to boost crop yields, which will free up land to plant trees to help cut carbon emissions.
Action is needed to bring in soil-friendly farming practices, and the post-Brexit overhaul of environmental laws, including new payments to farmers to provide public goods, provides an opportunity to encourage soil conservation.
Risks to natural carbon stores such as woods and peatlands:
Hotter, drier conditions reduce the functioning of peatlands and forests and threaten their existence, while “blue carbon” stores such as saltmarsh and kelp forests are at risk from warming seas and the loss of coastal habitat.
Meeting targets to cut UK emissions to net zero by 2050 relies on these natural stores of carbon to absorb around 50 million tonnes of emissions per year, so protecting them is a high priority, the Climate Change Committee says.
Action is required to ensure the right trees are planted in the right places and degraded peatlands are restored.
Risks to crops, livestock and commercial trees:
Climate change poses a direct risk to agriculture and forestry through heat, drought, waterlogging, flooding, fire, and spread of pests, diseases and non-native species – and there is no evidence these risks are being strategically planned for, the report says.
Action to cope with these issues will include new varieties of crops and trees and different breeds which are more resilient, and changes to land management including better technology for managing water and supplying nutrients as well as improving soil conservation.
Risks to supply of food, goods and vital services due to collapse of supply chains and distribution networks:
Climate change can disrupt the often international supply chains of goods, through heavy rainfall, flooding and high temperatures.
Action includes better information, diversifying supply chain risks, and new technology and infrastructure, and will mostly fall to businesses, though the government can support them with advice and information.
Risks to people and the economy from power system failures:
The UK currently gets around 15-20% of its energy from electricity but that is set to grow to around 65% as we switch to electric vehicles and heat pumps, alongside its use for lighting, communications and other necessities.
Flooding, water shortages, wildfire, high temperatures, rising seas and increases in storms can all hit parts of the power supply system, causing blackouts and hitting multiple areas of the economy.
As the UK ramps up investment in electricity generation such as offshore wind farms and the grid, there is an urgent need to ensure the power system is resilient to climate impacts.
Risks to health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in homes and buildings:
People are already at risk of illness and death from high temperatures, with more than 2,500 deaths linked to last year’s heatwave in England – more than at any time since records began in 2003.
Without adaptation, the number of people dying from heat could treble to around 7,000 by 2050, while there will also be losses in productivity, and effects on elderly people being cared for in their homes.
Efforts to stop overheating in buildings are missing, even though it is one of the biggest risks the UK faces, the report warns as it calls for updating of building regulations and policies to ensure new homes are built with cooling measures as well as energy efficiency.
Multiple risks to the UK from the impacts of climate change overseas:
Extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes could create cascading risks that spread through sectors and countries, in the same way Covid-19 has caused terrible impacts to society and costs to Government, the report warns.
Overseas aid programmes should reduce underlying vulnerabilities, not just respond to disasters, and there should be greater finance for adaptation as part of efforts to help poorer countries tackle climate change.