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The UK's agriculture, coastline and natural habitats are all threatened by climate change - so what's the government's response?

  • 10 Jul 2013, 07:00
  • Robin Webster

Climate change could pose risks to the UK's ability to produce its own food within ten to fifteen years if the government doesn't change the way water resources are managed, according to a new report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The latest assessment from the government advisor looks at the country's ability to adapt to climate change. It examines what a changing climate could mean for the land's ability to supply goods and services - like food and timber, wildlife habitats, carbon storage, water regulation and defending the country's sea coast. 

The challenges the report identifies aren't new. According to a recent report compiled by the country's wildlife organisations 60 per cent of the UK's wildlife species are in decline as a result of man's activities. But the CCC says climate change could be about to make matters a lot worse - and though the government is aware of many of the problems, it's not clear how it is going to respond. 

Water stress threatens agriculture

Agriculture currently accounts for just under one per cent of the country's water use. But crop production is already concentrated in the south and east of the country, where it is drier. As temperatures rise and summer rainfall decreases, more water will be needed to irrigate crops - but there will be less available. 

Lead author Dr Sebastian Catovsky, head of Adaptation for the CCC, told us: 

"Agriculture doesn't use much water compared to households and industry, but it's critical. And we can't assume that it will be possible for other sectors to use less water." 

According to the report, in a dry year in the mid 2020s the agricultural sector could experience a water shortfall of 115 billion litres of water a year - almost half of the amount the sector currently consumes:

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This could have implications for the UK's ability to feed itself. The UK currently imports 40 per cent of its food - but climate change is expected to make domestic food production more important, because our temperate climate is likely to be less adversely affected by climate change than other parts of world. 

The CCC says higher temperatures and longer growing seasons may provide opportunities for farmers in this country - but not if water scarcity or loss of soil fertility limits production. 

Protecting coastlines from sea level rise 

The UK's 105,000 hectares of coastal habitat includes saltmarshes, mudflats, beaches and sea cliffs, and is important for wildlife. But from a more self-interested point of view, these habitats also act as a sea defence for about a quarter of the country's coastline. 

Rather than trying to hold back rising sea levels, the government has set a target to move about 10 per cent of the country's coastline backwards by 2030 as sea levels rise, in a process known somewhat euphemistically as managed realignment

This, says the CCC, would create about 6,200 hectares of coastal habitat - and save the country between £180 and £380 million that it would cost to hold the line. But the government is showing little sign of delivering on the target, the report concludes. Only one per cent of the coastline has been realigned since the 1990s - and the rate of managed realignment would need to increase five-fold for the government to deliver on its target.

The importance of peat 

Wildlife and natural habitats can adapt to climate change, but only if they are in a good state of repair. Catovsky says: 

"If you have lots of ecosystems in a good state, they are more likely to be able to respond to climate change and do the things we need them to be able to do." 

But many of the UK's ecosystems are badly degraded. The report finds that despite recent conservation efforts, the last ten years have seen the proportion of protected wildlife sites classified as being in "good condition" fall from 42 per cent to 37 per cent. Three quarters of the country's wildlife habitats are fragmented - making it much harder for species to migrate to different parts of the country in response to changing climate. 

In addition, the report says just four per cent of upland deep peat is in a favourable ecological condition. Peatland is particularly important because it is a major carbon store. The committee warns that degraded peatland is further adding to the UK's carbon emissions:

"in many areas, dried-out peatlands are losing carbon to the atmosphere and into water systems". 

An estimated 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year is currently being emitted from upland peat areas in England.  

This will increase as temperatures go up. According to a study cited by the report, every degree rise in temperature could mean a 30 per cent increase in carbon dioxide emissions from degraded peatland. Climate change could increase emissions from upland peat areas by a factor of three over the next few decades, the committee calculates.  

A government response? 

The government has produced a variety of reports tackling these issues. Defra's National Adaptation Programme recently concluded every £1 spent on adaptation represents four times its value in damages avoided, for example. 

But as with other areas of government policy, there are questions over whether it will deliver in practice. The CCC warns the government should "press on" with plans to price water according to how scarce it is - which were not included in the recent Water Bill - and says that it is "not clear" how it will meet its goals on coastal realignment. If arguments over the government's policies to prevent climate change seem endless, this report demonstrates that arguments about how the country is going to adapt to climate change are underdeveloped. 

The omens are perhaps not good. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - responsible for the climate change adaptation programme - has suffered disproportionately large cuts to its budget in comparison to other more high profile parts of government. The team of staff responsible for adaptation was recently cut from 38 to six - although the government argues that the expertise has been moved elsewhere in the department. The Minister in charge of Defra, Owen Paterson, appears to believe that climate change has stopped.

Some people believe that we can adapt to climate change instead of trying to prevent it. A realistic perspective suggests that we will need to do both. Today's report should raise concerns about whether we are doing either well.

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