The UK Government has published the country’s first ever National Climate Change Risk Assessment.

DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (only in England…) demonstrated the enormous influence a national government can exert on all levels of a country’s policies by funding this extraordinary undertaking, which, in the true spirit of adaptation, will be renewed every five years.

Among the key risks the CCRA identifies, in the unlikely event the UK took no further action, are:

  • Hotter summers present significant health risks. The CCRA projects that without measures to reduce the risk, there could be between 580-5,900 additional premature deaths per year by the 2050s. The Department for Health launched a Heatwave Plan in 2004 and update it annually to provide advice and support for people vulnerable to hotter weather.
  • Increasing pressure on the UK’s water resources. The CCRA projects that without action to improve water resources, there could be major supply shortages by the 2050s in parts of the north, south and east of England with the greatest challenge in the Thames River basin. Defra published a Water White Paper last year which includes a package of measures to address water supply shortages, and to ensure the water industry is more resilient to future challenges.
  • The risks of flooding are projected to increase significantly across the UK. New analysis for England and Wales show that if no further plans were made to adapt to changing flood risks, by the 2080s due the effects of climate change and population growth annual damages to buildings and property could reach between £2.1billion – £12billion, compared to current costs of £1.2billion. Defra has introduced a new method of allocating funding for flood defences so that more communities will benefit from flood protection, and the Department is working with the ABI to ensure that flood insurance remains widely available after the current agreement between Government and insurers expires in 2013. As part of these discussions, Defra is considering whether there are feasible, value for money ways of targeting funding support to those at highest flood risk and less able to pay.
  • The number of days in an average year when temperatures rise above 26 degrees C is projected to rise from 18 days to between 27-121 days in London by the 2080s. This could mean greater demand for energy to cool buildings and more heat related illnesses.
  • Increases in drought and some pest and diseases could reduce timber yields and quality. Projected drought conditions could mean a drop in timber yields of between 10% and 25% by the 2080s in the south east, driving up timber costs. Pests and diseases, which thrive in warmer conditions, may also pose an increasing threat, such as red band needle blight – which causes loss of foliage and can lead to tree death. Defra has published a Tree and Plant Health Action Plan and committed £7million to further research into plant diseases.

The CCRA also highlights opportunities for the UK that climate change could present, including:

  • Opening of Arctic shipping routes. The melting of Arctic sea ice could lead to the opening up of new container shipping routes and improved trade links with Asia and the Pacific.
  • Milder winters may result in a major reduction in cold-related deaths and illnesses. Currently, cold weather results in between 26,000 and 57,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. By the 2050s, a reduction in these figures of between 3,900 and 24,000 is projected to occur due to increasing average winter temperatures. This would particularly benefit vulnerable groups, including those with existing health problems.
  • Opportunities to improve sustainable food production. Sugar beet yields are projected to increase by 20-70% and wheat yields by 40-140% by the 2050s due to longer growing seasons if water and nutrients remain available. A warmer climate presents opportunities to grow new crops such as soya, sunflowers, peaches, apricots and grapes, while new markets may open up overseas for British grown produce.

The CCRA evidence will be used to develop a National Adaptation Programme (NAP) that will set out timescales for the actions government will take to meet the challenges of climate change.