Flooding, heatwaves and displaced people

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Met Office releases dramatic warning over climate change

People may have to be moved away from high-risk areas as climate change makes flooding more likely and more severe in the UK, the government has said.

The warning came as a report by the Met Office based in Exeter found Britain would experience much wetter winters and summers as much as 5C hotter as a result of climate change. This year’s heatwave is likely to become the new normal by mid-century, but the wettest days are now on average seeing 17% more rainfall than in the recent past, bringing a much heightened risk of flash flooding.

The Met Office released its report at the same time as the naturalist Sir David Attenborough said climate change is humanity’s greatest threat in thousands of years.

The broadcaster said it could lead to the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of “much of the natural world.”

He was speaking at the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland.
The meeting is the most critical on climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement.

Sir David said: “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change.

‘If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Announcing the biggest review of climate change in Britain for nearly a decade, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said flooding was one of the key ways in which changes would become manifest in the UK.

“It will not always be possible to prevent every flood,” he told an audience of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stakeholders.

“We cannot build defences to protect every single building or reinforce every retreating coastline. We will be looking at ways we can encourage every local area to strive for greater overall resilience that takes into account all the different levers from land-use planning to better water storage upstream, and tackles both flood prevention and response.”

Defra is spending £2.6bn on flood defences between 2015 and 2021, and aims to protect 300,000 homes from flooding by that date. The Met Office said the UK could expect warmer and wetter winters as a result of climate change.

The Environment Agency is preparing for 4C of warming in planning the UK’s flood defences, though the Paris agreement aims to limit warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. Even in the lowest-emission scenario presented by the report, average annual temperatures are expected to be up to 2.3C higher by the end of the century.

The chance of seeing a summer as hot as 2018 was less than 5% in the 1990s, but already that risk is between 10% and 20%, and by mid-century will be 50%, according to the projections. But while summers grow hotter, they will also be wetter in some places, with the average summer now 20% wetter than the average between 1961 and 1990.

Gove said: “We need our communities and infrastructure to be better prepared for floods and coastal change, so that they recover more quickly from the damage and disruption and, where necessary, to help people and communities move out of harm’s way.”

Next year, Defra will publish a long-term policy
statement on flooding and coastal erosion and the Environment Agency will issue a new 50-year flood strategy, which Gove said should “explore new philosophies”, going beyond traditional flood defences such as sea and river walls and other ‘hard’ barriers.

Gove said the new data in the UK Climate Projections report, compiled by Defra and the Met Office, would help communities and businesses to protect themselves better from the increasing flood risk.

New flood protection measures will include natural defences such as planting trees, restoring heathland and installing “leaky dams”, as well as in some cases allowing water to breach sea walls to create new wetland habitats for birds.

In a wide-ranging speech, the secretary of state also promised new domestic policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using resources more efficiently and tackling waste, planting more trees and restoring peatlands.

Next year an England Peat Strategy will be published, setting out how the condition of the country’s peatlands – only 13% of which are in near natural condition – will be improved. A new taskforce will also be set up, involving farmers, conservationists and academics.

Dartmoor could be highlighted as a key area in fighting climate change as biodiverse areas like peat bogs, species rich grassland and ancient woodland are now known to be highly important habitats in absorbing emissions.

The creation or restoration of ‘planted’ areas to create biodiverse landscapes has been cited as an essential part of the fight, and in a recent report Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at UCL, stated, “Restoring just one hectare of land would offset the yearly emissions from 30 London buses.. Restoring 500,000 hectares of species rich habitat would absorb the equivalent emissions of every registered vehicle in the UK.”

Farmers will be central to many parts of the climate strategy, with Gove promising reforms around how fertilisers are used and a new emissions reduction plan for agriculture, at the same time as encouraging farmers to grow more food. Farmers would be supported by the government in reducing the emissions from their land and activities, Gove said, but he did not specify what form this support would take.

New water supply infrastructure will also be needed, and Gove raised the possibility of new reservoirs, which could prove controversial in some areas. The government will lay before parliament a new draft national policy statement that will set out measures to make it easier for water companies to build reservoirs and water transfer infrastructure.

Water companies have set out proposals for more than £50bn of investment between 2020 and 2025, which are now under scrutiny by Ofwat to ensure they represent value for money for the public.

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