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‘Adapt or die’: Environment Agency says UK businesses must prepare for climate change impacts

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The Environment Agency warns road to Net Zero could be knocked off course if we don’t adapt to climate change.


Adaptation to climate change is in danger of being ‘grievously undercooked’ at the forthcoming COP26 (climate change ‘Conference of the Parties’), the Environment Agency has warned.

In a sobering report the EA says floods like those that claimed the lives of 200 people this year in Germany will ‘happen in this country sooner or later.’

The report, released to the government on Wednesday, says we are currently heading for an increase in the global average temperature of just under 3C by the end of the century.

But, even with a 2°C temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels the UK will see:

  • Winter rainfall increase by approximately 6% by the 2050s and by 8% by the 2080s, compared to a 1981-2000 baseline.
  • Summer rainfall decrease by approximately 15% by the 2050s compared to a 1981-2000 baseline.
  • London’s sea level rise by between approximately 23cm by the 2050s and 45cm by the 2080s.
  • River flows to become more extreme. Peak flows are expected to be up to 27% higher in the 2050s, while in the summer months river flows could be 82% lower by as soon as 2050.

This change will reshape the natural environment and the systems that support our communities and our economies, including food, water and how we use our land.

We are already seeing evidence of rising sea levels, more frequent and more extreme flooding. Photograph: Pxfuel

The impact of these effects of climate change could also cause increasing disruption to regulated industries, it says.

Energy generation could be disrupted by flooding. Transport systems and the supply of materials could also be disrupted, as industries often rely on complex global supply chains.

Hotter and drier weather could cause invasive species and pests to multiply at industrial sites. Warmer winters have already influenced outbreaks of pests and pathogens. It is estimated that England suffers £1.3 billion in damages a year from invasive species, which include 58 terrestrial and 130 freshwater invasive species.

At the same time, 35% of 402 terrestrial species are at risk of loss due to climate change.

The report’s bottom line warning is that “without adaptation the economic transition to net zero will be knocked off course by sea level rise, storms and droughts.”

Surface pollution at the Leeds Liverpool Canal, an effect of pollution but also climate change as warmer temperatures breed invasive species and sewage overflows become overwhelmed by heavy rainfall. Photograph: iStock

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, said: “While mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation, preparing for climate shocks, that will save millions of lives. Choosing one over the other on the basis of a simple either/or calculation is like telling a bird it only needs one wing to fly."

"With that in mind, it is deeply worrying that adaptation is in danger of being grievously undercooked at COP26. Not by the UK Government, but by the world at large.

"Significant climate impacts are inevitable. We can successfully tackle the climate emergency if we do the right things, but we are running out of time to implement effective adaptation measures. Our thinking must change faster than the climate.”

The Thames Barrier stops London being flooded. But will it be enough? Photograph: Phil Dolby / Flickr

In practical terms, for businesses this means reducing the corporate climate footprint. Working with the EA, Kimberley Clarke’s Cumbria tissue plant managed to reduce water and energy use by 50-70%, after investing in a new tissue machine. They are now able to re-use more fibres within the paper-making process.

The Environment Agency says that by getting businesses to think differently about scarce resources we are helping to integrate climate adaptation and mitigation thinking into  manufacturing processes.

Finally, the report says that the Environment Agency could become overwhelmed unless businesses act.

More than 76,000 incidents were reported to its incident management service last year, including flood, drought, fires, fish kills and pollution incidents: one every seven minutes. Climate change is now increasing their severity, frequency and duration and the EA are preparing ‘but the burden of emergency response will increasingly divert our staff and resources from other activities.’

Higher workloads and pressure arising from increased incident duty also place heavy burdens on the health, safety and wellbeing of its staff, it says.

Read the report: Living Better with a Changing Climate here 

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