The first report of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change was published today, September 16, 2010. The report, entitled How well prepared is the UK for climate change?, is the first national assessment of country-wide preparedness and progress on adaptation to climate change.

The Climate Change Act and the Committee on Climate Change

In November 2008, the Parliament of the UK passed the Climate Change Act, which made it the legal duty of the Secretary of State to reduce net UK greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline by 2050[1]. In essence, the Act is an important piece of legislation guiding the transition to a low-carbon economy in the UK. To achieve the reductions target set forth by the Act, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was established the next month, in December 2008. The independent body of the CCC is responsible for providing advice and reporting progress on national emissions targets and emissions reductions. The Committee’s responsibilities, as laid out on their website, are to[2]:

– Provide independent advice to government on setting and meeting carbon budgets and targets

– Monitor progress in reducing emissions and achieving carbon budgets

– Conduct independent research and analysis into climate change

– Engage with representatives interested in climate change from across the UK in order to share research and information on climate change

Nested within the CCC is the Adaptation Sub-Committee, a group devoted to supporting the CCC in the above areas, and responsible for assessing government progress on the implementation of the National Adaptation Programme. The first report of the CCC, Building a low-carbon economy – the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change, was published December 1, 2008. The report acted as an initial advisory text related to the 2050 emission target[3]. In line with the recommendations laid out in this report, in April 2009 the UK government set an interim goal requiring a 34% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.

Mitigation vs. Adaptation: Two Complementary Types of Action

Today’s report provides a detailed analysis of the current ability of the UK to cope with present and future climate change impacts. Before I continue, it’s worth pointing out that a significant difference exists between mitigation of climate change and adaptation to climate change. The below definitions were derived from entries in the glossary of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group III Report: Mitigation of Climate Change.

Adaptation: Initiatives and measures to reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems against actual or expected climate change effects. Deals with present and predicted impacts of climate change. An example of an adaptive measure is increasing the height of river dikes in areas vulnerable to increasing water level.

Mitigation: Implementing policies and taking actions to reduce sources causing climate change, and enhance sinks. Deals with reducing future impacts of climate change. A common example of mitigative action is the setting of legal emissions reductions targets for greenhouse gas emissions. In this case, the action is reducing GHGs, a source.

The UK has legally committed to both mitigation and adaptation actions. As mentioned above, it has legally committed to mitigating climate change by reducing GHG emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. In addition, “it is legally obliged to plan for the climate change that is already happening and will continue to accelerate”[4]. To date, the large majority of global efforts are directed towards mitigating the human causes of climate change, especially through reductions in GHG emissions. However, mitigation and adaptation to climate change are complementary, and both are needed to effectively tackle the challenges presented by this issue.

The Report: How Well Prepared is the UK for Climate Change?

The Adaptation Sub-Committee, as I’m sure you could guess, is focused specifically on adaptation to climate change. In their first national assessment, they have addressed four key questions relevant to climate change adaptation.

1. What steps should the UK be taking to adapt?

The report summarizes the types of action that need to be taken within the UK so that businesses, the public sector, individuals, and the government can remain a step ahead of climate change impacts and take advantage of potential opportunities. They emphasize that preparation today will reduce costs and damages tomorrow, and point to five key national adaptation priorities: land use planning, national infrastructure, design and renovation of buildings, natural resources management, and emergency planning. Figure 1, sourced from the ASC report, defines each of these areas and provides examples of possible measures relevant to each[5].

Figure 1: Definitions of the Priority Areas and Possible Adaptation Measures

2. What progress has been made so far?

Though the UK has begun the vital process of capacity-building for climate change adaptation (especially in the public sector, where a growing awareness of risks has been noted), the report concludes that these efforts are not yet translating effectively into specific actions that will reduce vulnerability.

In particular, the report recognizes the achievements of the Government in raising awareness of the issue through the UK Climate Projections and UK Climate Impacts Programme. However, a key barrier exists in the form of policy: throughout the UK, policies either prevent action on climate change adaptation, or shift it as a low priority in favour of other, short-term issues. In addition, inadequate or insufficient climate risk information is preventing some organizations from recognizing and promoting the business case fir climate change adaptation. It seems as though next steps should focus on adaptation policy prioritization and an increase to appropriate information.

3. What further action is required?

Climate change adaptation requires action from a whole slew of different groups: local authorities, businesses, public sector agencies, government, and individuals. A substantial amount of the answer to this question lies within the government, whose role is crucial in shaping the market and its policies to the advantage of adaptation measures. In particular, the report stresses that the government needs to: set parameters to define situations where adaptation is necessary (e.g. what level of flood risk is acceptable); promote adaptation capability, especially in areas where progress is slow; ensure that decision-makers have access to the information, tools, and personnel needed to set adaptation measures into place; and keep up with current and upcoming policy reforms.

The report also mentions that businesses should further incorporate climate change impacts into their long-term decisions and strategies, and that local authorities can help by encouraging understanding of vulnerabilities specific to their operations, and embedding solutions into risk management.

4. What will the ASC do to help?

The role of the ASC in regards to actual action is limited. Instead, the group is there to monitor progress and achievement of adaptation measures and use the evidence gathered to report on the ability of the UK to handle the impacts of climate change. Basically, you can expect more reports in the future. Hopefully, these reports will show that progress is being made, and that awareness and actions related to climate change adaptation are becoming vertically integrated within the entire UK community.

Keep An Eye Out…

The ASC has several reports on the horizon. According to the CCC website, we can expect a report entitled Advice to Government on the Carbon Reduction Commitment Scheme for Businesses to be released September 24, 2010. In 2011 and 2012, the ASC will provide a follow-up to this report, with updates and a more detailed assessment, along with formal advice on the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA). The CCRA is a nation-wide assessment of the risks of climate change required every five years under the Climate Change Act of 2008. The first CCRA is due on January 26, 2012[6].

[1] http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?activeTextDocId=3539938

[2] http://www.theccc.org.uk/about-the-ccc

[3] http://www.theccc.org.uk/reports/building-a-low-carbon-economy

[4] http://downloads.theccc.org.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/ASC/CCC_ASC_Report_web_1.pdf

[5] http://downloads.theccc.org.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/ASC/CCC_ASC_Report_web_1.pdf

[6] http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climate/adaptation/ccra/index.htm

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