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An Independant National Adaptation Programme for England


There is a case for early Government action to promote and enable better adaptation to climate change. Although the UK’s climate is relatively benign, it is already vulnerable to extremes of weather. Climate change will exacerbate these risks. Adaptation is about risk management – to reduce harm and exploit the potential benefits of climate change both today and in the long term. Adaptation has socio-economic benefits today and tomorrow through increasing the resilience of the UK’s economy, its natural environment and society.

The purpose of this policy brief is to contribute to the National Adaptation Programme that is currently under preparation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Climate Change Act (Her Majesty’s Government, 2008) requires the Government to put in place, and update every five years, a National Adaptation Programme (NAP), which addresses climate change risks. This policy brief aims to contribute to this process by offering an analytical framework and formulating a rational basis for thinking about adaptation. It aims to inform the first NAP report, due in mid-2013. While the NAP is formally just for England, the analysis and lessons here are applicable to the UK as a whole.

The NAP is important because climate change poses new challenges that are best addressed through a coordinated and strategic approach. Dealing with climate risks is not new. However, adaptation to climate change poses several new challenges:

  • The first new challenge is that climate risk can no longer be assumed to be constant. Policy must shift toward a forward-looking risk management paradigm, based upon future trends, risks and adaptation needs.
  • The second new challenge is that in some cases action is needed now to cope with the scale, speed and potential irreversibility of climate change impacts. Action will need to be more anticipatory and less reactive than it has been in the past.
  • The third new challenge is that it is impossible to know what future climate we need to adapt to. Dealing with this depth of uncertainty will require a flexible and iterative approach to making long-term decisions, which reduces vulnerability and risk today and in the future, whilst avoiding foreclosing options. The process must proactively learn from, and respond to, new information, rather than being a one-off ‘optimised’ decision.

The first NAP report is an opportunity to establish a strategic approach to climate change adaptation in the UK. The first NAP is an initial milestone in an ongoing, iterative process, rather than a self-contained strategy. Its main purpose is to:

  • highlight areas of likely risk, and resolve analytical difficulties in assessing risks so that they do not prevent action;
  • establish the principles for good adaptation over the long term, including a sensible approach to uncertainty; and
  • define an initial set of specific, time-sensitive priorities for Government action – it should also identify potential gaps in those priorities and lay out an agenda to fill these gaps through further research and consultation.

A coordinated, strategic approach does not imply Government-led adaptation. Most adaptation is undertaken by private actors – households, firms and civil society – and their actions cannot be planned centrally. However, private adaptation is likely to come up against barriers, including financial, behavioural and informational barriers, as well as a lack of capacity and skills.

These barriers justify a role for Government action to help ensure prosperity in the face of climate change. The role of the state is to provide an enabling framework that encourages and supports decentralised adaptation. The role of the public sector – Government departments, local authorities and public agencies – can be categorised into four types, which represent different state functions and grades of public intervention:

  • providing adaptation services directly, if the public sector commissions or delivers adaptation as a public good;
  • enabling adaptation in areas where policy needs to overcome private barriers to adaptation, or provide stronger incentives through price and regulation;
  • assisting with adaptation, for example with help to vulnerable people and other support to ensure a fair and equitable adaptation outcome; and
  • informing about climate risks to overcome knowledge barriers, and providing public information (climate and other) as a way to support private adaptation.

There are many adaptation actions that it would be sensible to initiate now. There are three keyareas on which early adaptation efforts should focus:

  • Adaptations with early, robust benefits. Fast-tracking adaptation makes sense if the proposed measures have immediate, robust and cost-efficient benefits, such as water efficiency and better environmental management.
  • Areas where decisions today could ‘lock-in’ vulnerability profiles for a long time. Fast-tracking adaptation is desirable if a wrong decision today makes us more vulnerable in the future and if those effects are costly to reverse. Several strategic decisions potentially fall into this category, including those on long-term infrastructure (e.g. the location of new airports, rail links and wind farms), land-use planning and the management of development trends, such as regional water demand.
  • ‘Low-regrets’ adaptation measures with long lead times. It makes sense to fast-track adaptations that have long lead times, such as research and development.

To illustrate the need for timely action, 12 priorities for Government action are identified(Table S.1). The list includes many measures that aim to prevent vulnerability from becominggreater. For example, ensuring that new long-lived infrastructure and buildings are suitable forthe climate over their lifetime (priorities VIII, X, XI) and do not negatively affect the resilience ofthe surrounding area (priority XII). Similarly, land management decisions should aim to enhancenatural capital, to protect ecosystem services and also to retain flexibility for adaptation in thelong-term (priority XII and V). Another priority is to ensure there is adequate capacity withinGovernment, at appropriate levels, to deliver effective adaptation (priority III).

These actions have strong benefit-cost ratios. This analysis suggests that in many cases the priorities for adaptation involve refining existing regulation and policies, rather than implementing major new investment programmes. For example, the Government could reassess whether current water regulation (priority VIII) and the Common Agricultural Policy (priority V) promote long-term resilience to climate. Acting early to implement programmes for existing public infrastructure (priority X) can minimise costs by enabling retrofits to be part of routine maintenance.

Suggested citation

Fankhauser, S., Ranger, N., Colmer, J., Fisher, S., Surminski, S., Stainforth, D., and Williamson, A. March 2013.An Independent National Adaptation Programme for England. Policy brief, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment, London, UK.

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