Environment Agency Warns UK to ‘Adapt or Die’

Water woes in England and Scotland are already alerting people to this fact.

flooded street

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Stark warnings came in the Environment Agency's third adaptation report submitted to the Westminster government under the Climate Change Act. The Environment Agency’s chair, Emma Howard Boyd, was recently quoted in the Guardian:

“Adaptation action needs to be integral to government, businesses, and communities, and people will soon question why it isn’t—especially when it is much cheaper to invest early in climate resilience than to live with the costs of inaction.”

She added: “While mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation—preparing for climate shocks—that will save millions of lives. It is adapt or die. With the right approach we can be safer and more prosperous. So let’s prepare, act and survive.”

Water Woes in England

Central to adaptation efforts will be tackling water-related woes. Deadly events like the flooding which struck Germany this summer will likely hit England if resilience is not increased. Water shortages and pollution will also increase in frequency and severity. 

The recent EA report warned that regulation is not ready for climate change, and the natural world cannot adapt as fast as the climate is changing. London's sea level will rise significantly, river flows will become more extreme, and wet days could be far more intense. 

If no further action is taken between 2025 and 2050, more than 3.4 billion extra liters of water a day will be required for resilient public water supplies. Global warming means that England's winter rainfall will increase by around 6%, but summer rainfall will reduce by 15% by the 2050s. 

Adaptation and its necessity is, of course, nothing new. For years environmentalists have highlighted the urgent necessity of the peatland and wetland restoration on which the EA are currently focused, and on the need for natural and sustainable water management and flood prevention measures.

The EA report focuses on England's dwindling chance for adaptation. As the report states, it's still doable but time is desperately short.

The Scottish Picture

SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency) is Scotland's principle environmental regulator. Keen to discuss adaptation further, and to understand the picture north of the border as well as in England, Treehugger reached out to SEPA for comment. Jo Green, acting CEO of SEPA said:

“Scotland is already seeing the impacts of a changing climate. The last few years have seen an increase in water scarcity and localized, high-intensity rainfall events. We know that there is locked-in climate change we cannot reverse, including sea level rise.

“As well as adapting to this, Scotland must play its part in a huge reduction in carbon emissions globally so future generations do not face further locked-in change. It is estimated that 284,000 Scottish homes, businesses, and services are currently at risk of flooding. That figure could rise to 394,000 by 2080 if little or no action is taken to tackle climate change."

Green went on to say that Scottish communities must come to terms with what adaption means in practice. SEPA is currently working to develop flood risk management plans in partnership with local authorities. (The consultation can be accessed here.)

“The question we should always be asking is, 'How can what is being designed or installed be adapted to protect against future risk?' Climate adaptation is a huge innovation challenge, but humans are amazing innovators when we need to be—as the last two years have shown. There are huge opportunities for innovation and creativity in avoiding and managing future flood risk. We can make rapid major changes to how we live, work, and keep ourselves safe; and SEPA’s expertise will be here to help Scotland’s communities adapt and thrive.”

Water and sewerage across Scotland is not provided by regional private water companies as in England, but rather by Scottish Water, accountable to the public through the Scottish Government. A spokesperson told Treehugger:

“Scottish Water is committed to adapting to the changing climate and reducing our impact on it. We have a Net Zero route map which will drive us to net zero emissions by 2040 and net zero operational emissions by 2030.”

But changing weather patterns are affecting Scottish Water's operations in a number of ways. The spokesperson went on to say that, over the summer, "torrential and extremely localized downpours overwhelmed parts of the Victorian-era sewer network that was not designed to deal with such heavy rainfall." At the same time, Scotland experienced the second driest summer on record, which made supplying water even harder.

“We are transforming our business to deal with these challenges and are embracing different approaches to tackling these issues. We are restoring peatlands to protect source waters, adopting nature-based solutions to reduce the impacts of flooding, and are working with partners to maximize the biodiversity of our land."

"Adapt or die," "adapt and thrive"—the message is clear. Nature-based solutions are crucial to the adaptation picture, to preventing flooding and securing fresh water supplies both north and south of the border. Swift and coordinated action on adaptation, as well as mitigation, is crucial in avoiding future impacts on people and ecosystems in the British Isles.

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