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Climate Committee warns UK water sector “near the edge"

19 July 2011

The Committee on Climate Change has warned the Government that the UK water sector is near its limits in coping with climate change in its newly-published second progress report.

The Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) said that while the UK is coping now, it is near its limits in some key sectors and could be pushed over the edge by climate change. The Committee said that in the water sector, while only 8% of resource zones in England are currently at risk of a supply shortfall in a severe drought, this could increase to around 45% by 2035 without additional investment. According to the report  although UK water supply is resilient to current climate, many aspects are only just coping and the resilience comes at a continued environmental cost. Three of the largest risks to the UK identified by the Government’s National Risk Register are weather-related, namely coastal flooding, inland flooding and severe weather.

The report says that the UK water companies have not yet made any specific investment in climate adaptation to tackle potential shortfalls in water supply. Delay of investment could lead to higher costs in the future or increased risks of water shortages. The Committee says it has identified scope to better manage the gap between supply and demand caused by climate change through the following measures:

  • a greater level of ambition on water efficiency programmes;
  • reforms to the abstraction regime to reflect water scarcity;
  • more robust approaches to factoring climate change uncertainty into long-term investment planning.

The ASC also warned that climate risks did not appear not to be fully incorporated into major strategic decisions on land use planning and investment in water infrastructure. The report says that embedding climate change more fully into decision-making could reduce future adaptation costs, such as building new flood defences and maintaining existing defences, and also ensure that climate risks are appropriately balanced against other risks and benefits.

The report provides the ASC’s second assessment of the UK’s preparedness, following its first review in September 2010. The Committee has started to develop a set of indicators against which to assess and track the UK’s preparedness and the latest assessment focuses on three of the priority areas identified in its first report – land use planning, managing water resources, and designing and renovating buildings.

Building development increasing flood risk

The report highlights how the UK’s growing vulnerability to climate change is potentially increasing as a result of patterns of building development. In almost all of the nine English local authorities studied in the report, development in the floodplain had increased, and in four of them the rate of development was higher than across the locality as a whole.

Three of the four coastal authorities saw an increase in development in areas of eroding coastline, and in two of them the rate of development on unprotected coastline was higher than across the authority as a whole.

The area of hard surfacing increased in five of the six urban authorities studied, primarily at the expense of urban greenspace, which declined in all six. This is likely to exacerbate surface water flooding risk and the urban heat island effect.

Lord John Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee said that the report demonstrated the need for a sharper focus on the UK’s current vulnerability to climate change. He said:

“By taking steps to manage this vulnerability, local communities, businesses and households can save money today and reduce the costs of climate change in the future”.

Little evidence of uptake of measures to reduce vulnerability

The ASC has set out a series of actions, which if implemented more widely could reduce the costs of climate change and save people money, including a package of measures to improve water efficiency, flood protection and summer cooling in buildings.

However, the Committee said that while “low-regret actions” could be taken now to reduce vulnerability –including measures to improve water efficiency and reduce damages to buildings from flooding, it had found limited evidence of uptake of such measures, which indicated the need for new policy approaches.

The Committee said that while the report demonstrated that property-level measures are beneficial, they would not deal with all risks by themselves and could even “lock in” patterns of development that required an ongoing commitment to flood defence.

The ASC has concluded that new policy approaches may be needed in order to address barriers to uptake, including incentives and improved information. Water efficiency improvement would require the wider use of water meters together with consumer behaviour change. In other cases, for example for adapting new housing, tighter regulations could be required to bring all suppliers up to the best industry standards.

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