On 24 July 2023 the House of Lords is due to debate a motion, tabled by Lord Krebs (Crossbench), on “the level of preparation by His Majesty’s Government in adapting to the impacts that climate change will have on health, the economy, food security and the environment”. Lord Krebs is an emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Oxford and a former chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council.

1. Impact of climate change

According to the Met Office climate change is “causing warming across the UK”, with all of the UK’s 10 warmest years on record having occurred since 2003. As a result of climate change, the Met Office predicts that the UK will see:

  • warmer and wetter winters
  • hotter and drier summers
  • more frequent and intense weather extremes

These effects are expected to have broad-based impacts across various aspects of life in the UK. Several specific areas are highlighted in the debate motion and each of these is considered below.

1.1 Health

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008, “periods of high temperatures can pose a significant threat to people’s health and wellbeing”. In the UK, increasingly frequent periods of high temperature are felt by people through the impact on internal building temperatures, particularly as a result of people in the UK spending a large proportion of their time inside. The CCC notes the following potential impacts of extended exposure to high temperatures:

  • Heat stress. This happens when the body’s way of controlling its internal temperature starts to fail. This can result in a rising core body temperature and an increasing heart rate, which can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
  • Adverse maternal health. High temperatures can adversely affect the health of pregnant women, particularly increasing the risk of preterm birth.
  • Adverse mental health. High temperatures can worsen mental health symptoms, with there being evidence of a relationship between higher temperatures and increased suicides.
  • Unintentional injury and accidents. There is evidence that high temperatures increase the risk of injury, particular for children.

For the most vulnerable people, high temperatures can lead to death. In 2018 the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) produced a report on heatwaves which noted that extreme heatwave events are associated with “increased excess mortality”—a higher number of deaths than would otherwise have occurred under normal circumstances. The report cited evidence that, on the whole, excess mortality was 17% across England and Wales during a 2003 heatwave. More recently, the Office for National Statistics recorded that “excess deaths” were 6.2% above their five-year average during the five ‘heat-periods’ between June and August 2022. (A heat-period is defined as day(s) on which the UK Health Security Agency issues a level 3 heat health alert and/or day(s) when the mean ‘central England temperature’ is greater than 20C).

The main causes of death during heatwaves are respiratory and cardiovascular disease. For example, the EAC report noted that the body keeps cool by sweating when temperatures are high, a process which places strain on the heart. As such, heatwaves can be fatal for those with underlying heart conditions. High temperatures are also “linked with increased air pollution”, with “hot, still air conditions” leading to an “increased concentration of fine particles”, a situation which can exacerbate underlying respiratory conditions.

Separately, the UK Health Security Agency notes that “warmer temperatures could see non-native mosquito species establishing in parts of the UK”, with the diseases they carry being transmitted to humans. The agency notes that such impacts have already been observed in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.

1.2 Food security

Both the UK government and international bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have identified climate change and biodiversity loss as major contributing factors to food insecurity in the UK and around the world.

In a 2022 report the IPCC suggested that global food security had already been damaged as a result of climate change, with some natural and human systems having already been pushed beyond their ability to adapt. The report stated that “global warming has slowed the growth of agricultural productivity over the past 50 years in mid and low latitudes”, with crop yields and harvest stability negatively affected by higher temperatures and a higher concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Evidence of climate impacts are already beginning to emerge in the UK. In its 2021 food security report, the government attributed a 40% drop in wheat yields in 2020 to heavy rainfall and droughts, suggesting this was an “indicator of the effect that increasingly unreliable weather patterns may have on future production”. More recently, home-grown vegetable supplies have been affected. For example, in February 2023 the British Leek Growers Association said a series of extreme weather events had reduced crop yields by as much as 30% over the previous year.

Professor Richard Pywell of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said in October 2022 that up until then “farmers have largely been able to compensate for adverse weather conditions by changing when they sow or harvest crops”. But going forwards he said “climate change will push the boundaries of what can be achieved through crop management” and this could threaten UK food production over the coming decades.

1.3 Environment

According to the CCC climate change is already having an “impact on natural systems” in the UK:

Evidence of long-term shifts in the distribution and abundance of some terrestrial, freshwater and marine species due to higher temperatures is now discernible, despite complex interactions. These shifts can be expected to continue and become more widespread, with some species potentially benefiting, but others losing suitable climate space.

Furthermore, the CCC has said the natural resilience of species and their ecosystems has been weakened by “historic and on-going pressures” from climate change, including “pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, the continuing drainage of wetlands and the unsustainable use of soil, water and marine resources”. Researchers at the Natural History Museum have estimated the UK’s ‘biodiversity intactness’ at 53%, lower than the global average of 75% and significantly lower than the researchers’ recommended “safe limit” of 90%.

1.4 Economy

The impacts described above can all be associated with significant economic impacts. Key channels through which climate change is likely to impact the economy include:

A 2022 report by the Grantham Institute attempted to estimate the total potential economic impact of climate change for the UK. The institute found that “under current policies, the total cost of climate change damages to the UK are projected to increase from 1.1% of GDP at present to 3.3% by 2050 and 7.4% by 2100”. The report noted that the biggest factor would be disruption to the global economic system (worth 4.1% of GDP by 2100).

2. Adapting to climate change

2.1 Policy framework

The government’s policy framework for adapting to climate change is set out by the Climate Change Act 2008. This commits the government to produce a ‘UK climate change risk assessment’ to identify risks, as well as a ‘national adaption programme’ (NAP) to address those risks every five years. The act also mandated the foundation of the CCC, which produces its own risk assessment report in advance of the government’s risk assessment, as well as producing a regular report assessing the progress being made in adapting to climate change. The CCC also publishes other reports, including its annual progress report to Parliament on reducing UK emissions, pursuant to section 36(1) of the Climate Change Act 2008.

2.2 Second NAP and risk assessments

The second NAP (NAP2) was published in July 2018, covering the period 2018 to 2023. It identified several high-risk areas which it sought to mitigate:

  • flooding and coastal change risks to communities, businesses and infrastructure
  • risks to health, wellbeing and productivity from high temperatures
  • risks of shortages in the public water supply for agriculture, energy generation and industry
  • risks to natural capital including terrestrial, coastal, marine and freshwater ecosystems, soils and biodiversity
  • risks to domestic and international food production and trade
  • new and emerging pests and diseases and invasive non-native species affecting people, plants and animals

In 2021, however, the CCC assessed that “the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened”. Its third ‘Independent assessment of UK climate risk’ report identified eight priority risk areas, selected on the basis of “urgency of additional action” and “the gap in UK adaption planning” amongst other criteria. Many of the areas identified by the CCC overlapped with those the second NAP sought to address:

  • risks to the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species from multiple hazards
  • risks to soil health from 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

The CCC report said that:

The UK has the capacity and the resources to respond effectively to these risks, but it has not yet done so. Acting now will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences. Government must lead that action.

However, in the absence of further adaption:

[…] the number of risks with annual impacts costing of the order of £bns per year is likely to triple by the 2080s, even if the global effort is successful in reducing greenhouse gases and limiting warming to 2C above 1850–1900 temperatures.

In 2022 the government published its latest ‘UK climate change risk assessment’ which was informed by the CCC’s ‘Independent assessment of UK climate risk’ report. This said that some progress had been made but that “we must go much further and faster to truly prepare for the impacts of a warmer world”. The assessment added that the UK was at the “beginning of the journey to respond to those risks” identified by the CCC.

2.3 Progress report on adapting to climate change

In March 2023 the CCC published its latest ‘Progress in adapting to climate change’ report. The scope of the report is:

[…] adaptation policy for which the UK government is responsible. For reserved areas of policy, the progress on adaptation across the UK is assessed; for devolved areas of policy, progress on adaptation is assessed only for England. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales produce their own national adaptation plans, on which the committee provides separate advice and assessment of progress when requested.

In the report the CCC noted that the “impacts from extreme weather in the UK over the last year highlight the urgency of adapting to climate change” and that NAP2 did not address all the risks from climate change identified in the previous climate change risk assessment:

Our assessment has found very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks facing the UK across cities, communities, infrastructure, economy and ecosystems. While the recognition of a changing climate within planning and policy is increasing, with some policy in most areas, it is clear that the current approach to adaptation policy is not leading to delivery on the ground and significant policy gaps remain. This limited progress is a direct consequence of the second national adaptation programme (NAP2). NAP2 did not address all the risks from climate change identified in the previous climate change risk assessment, it suffered from a lack of ambition and did not embed a focus on adaptation delivery across government to drive an effective overall response to the challenges of climate change.

The CCC assessed adaption preparedness across 13 ‘sectors’, including the following:

  • Nature. “Available indicators for the overall ecological health of terrestrial and freshwater habitats, including the state of their biodiversity which underpins resilience to climate change, are mostly either stagnant or declining. There is a more mixed picture for marine and coastal habitats. Newly unveiled environmental policy, including statutory targets, a new plan for environmental improvement and further details of the public money for public goods approach to agricultural management is welcome. While this has significant potential to enhance adaptation, detailed information, for example about implementation and funding, is lacking.”
  • Working land and seas. “The UK still lacks a targeted strategy and associated targets for ensuring agriculture remains productive as the climate changes. Indicators to track the exposure and vulnerability of the sector to climate change remain limited. New agricultural policies have been announced, but it remains to be seen how these will impact the climate resilience of agriculture. Climate adaptation planning by the forestry and fisheries sectors is more credible, with a range of new and emerging policies to build resilience, although vulnerability indicators suggest a mixed picture of their effectiveness to date.”
  • Food security. “Reporting by large private food companies on their supply chain risks is not currently mandated, preventing evaluation of progress on adaptation delivery and the overall levels of systemic risk in the UK food system. Recent shortages of imported vegetables have highlighted the exposure and vulnerability of food supply chains to weather-related impacts, and recent increases in household food insecurity will likely magnify the impact of food price spikes—including those driven by climate change.”
  • Telecoms and ICT. “There is a lack of available data to evaluate progress on reducing exposure and vulnerability to climate change in this sector. There remains no visible plan or process, by the industry or government, to manage long-term climate risks.”
  • Transport. “The strategic road network and the rail network both have credible planning for adaptation. Gaps remain in adaptation planning for local road networks. However, indicators show increased weather impacts on rail infrastructure, especially from heat and wind. Data for ports and airports are incomplete, preventing a full picture of adaptation and climate risk for these transport modes.”
  • Towns and cities. “Plans for flood defences and improved flood risk mapping are typically credible but maintaining defences and managing surface water flood risk will require further funding commitments. Evidence suggests flood risks are rising across the country and developments are still being built in areas at future risk. Most plans for new developments do not thoroughly regulate or track adaptation for future climate resilience and there are no clear mechanisms to monitor and mitigate the effects of urban heat islands. Plans to ensure developments at the coastline are protected remain non-statutory, and there is insufficient funding to enable affected communities to adapt.”
  • Buildings. “The update to the building regulations is a significant step forward to address overheating in new homes, putting in place good standards. There remains a lack of policy to address overheating in existing homes and buildings and a lack of understanding of the scale of efforts needed to mitigate the risk today. There is a lack of data tracking the overall scale of property flood resilience (PFR) implementation across the country. Recently implemented plans to improve access to and awareness of PFR are a positive step, as are Flood Re’s (publicly backed flood reinsurance) ‘Build back better’ scheme, kitemarked standards for PFR products, and industry codes of practice.”
  • Health. “Heat-related mortality was estimated to be at an all-time high in 2022, driven by the record-breaking heatwave experienced in the UK. Incidences of overheating are monitored within hospitals but there is no regular recording of temperatures in other healthcare settings such as care homes, domiciliary care or GP surgeries. There is a lack of policy and funding to address climate risks in existing health and social care buildings. Adaptation planning across NHS trusts, integrated care systems and social care providers is needed. A new Centre for Climate and Health Security within the UK’s Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) has been created to lead efforts to protect health in the context of a changing climate. UKHSA has also recently introduced enhanced testing and surveillance of invasive mosquitos and ticks, important climate-sensitive vectors for infectious disease.”

In addition to the above, the report noted the tendency for climate impacts to “cascade across sectors”. It argued that “despite the potential for damaging cascading impacts, consideration of these interdependencies in adaptation planning is lacking”. The report further noted that “there are not clear responsibilities and mechanisms for cross-government collaboration, which is needed to enable a more systematic assessment of interdependency risks”.

2.4 Third NAP

The CCC has said that the government’s next and third NAP, due to be published this summer, “must make a step change” in terms of both ambition and the “delivery of effective adaption”. The CCC said the government must “permanently and fully embed adaptation across government and within all relevant major policies and strategies”.

On 4 April 2023, Lord Benyon, minister of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs, said that it welcomed the report and that the CCC’s findings will be considered as the government develops its upcoming NAP. In answer to a written question on 24 April 2023, Trudy Harrison, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs, said that “adaptation is ‘mainstreamed’ across government, which means that all government spending should account for the risks posed by the impacts of climate change”. In answer to a second written question on the same date she said that the third NAP will “include a clear set of objectives for adaptation, with policies and accompanying delivery mechanisms to meet those objectives”.

3. Read more

Cover image by Vincent Delsuc on Pexels.