Resilience to climate change: policy context

In advance of the 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum, ‘Resilience to climate change: who pays (and who benefits)?’ on 17 November, the RGS-IBG Policy Team has pulled together brief background information to set the context for the event. It’s not too late to register to attend: please contact the Policy Team by Friday 13 November to reserve your space at the panel discussion and dinner.

Introduction to ‘resilience’ and background to the seminar
Geographers understand ‘resilience’ as a system’s ability to withstand and to bounce back from shocks and disturbances, returning to its original state once the shock has passed. The purpose of the seminar and dinner discussion at the RGS-IBG on 17 November is to explore the resilience of communities in the UK to cope with the pressures that are being, and will continue to be, caused by climate change. Resilience is a facet of adaptation to climate change.

The current UK Government and previous coalition, along with local authorities, have tended to use the terminology of resilience to describe the resilience of systems (e.g. a coordinated response from the emergency services in a crisis) and infrastructure (e.g. the built environment, cities, the transport network) to cope with climate change, primarily extreme events such as flooding. Yet the National Adaptation Programme (2013) includes a specific objective (objective 13), committing the Government to ‘minimise the impact of climate change on vulnerable groups in society by strengthening their resilience to better prepare for, respond to and recover from, future climate risk.’ Our event on 17 November will explore whose responsibility it is to deliver these resilient individuals and healthy communities (central, local government, communities themselves) and, importantly in a time of austerity, who will pay to put in place the necessary measures to do so.

The UK Climate Change Act

The UK Climate Change Act (2008) establishes in law the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent expert advisory group responsible for advising Government on greenhouse gas emission targets. Under the Act, the Government must set a series of five-yearly carbon budgets, setting out how emissions will be cut progressively to meet the headline target, enshrined in law through the Act, of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. The Rt. Hon. John Gummer, Lord Deben, is the current chair of the CCC.

The Government met the targets set out in the first carbon budget (2008-2012) and states that its projections show it is on track to meet the targets in the second (2013- 2017) and third (2018-2022). However, the Government acknowledges that emissions are projected to exceed the targets set in the fourth carbon budget (2023-2027) and has declared that by June 2016 it will set out measures to curb emissions over this period.

Climate Change Risk Assessment

The Climate Change Act further requires the Government to carry out a five-yearly assessment of the risks and opportunities to the UK from climate change. The Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) to the CCC, chaired by Lord Krebs, has been established under the Act with a duty to advise Government on the preparation of this Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA). The first assessment was published in January 2012 and the second is currently in preparation, due to be released in January 2017. An independent expert group is currently reviewing evidence and data to inform the CCRA and a draft report is due to be submitted to Defra in December. A final evidence report must be submitted to Government in July 2016, so that Government can prepare its final assessment.

The first CCRA identified flooding from rivers, the sea and sewers as the largest risk posed by climate change to the UK.

Following the publication of the CCRA in 2012, the Government published the National Adaptation Programme (2013), the Government’s long-term strategy to address the main risks and opportunities identified in the assessment. This must also be updated five-yearly, with the next due in 2018. The focus of the National Adaptation Programme is on: raising awareness of the need for climate change adaptation; increasing resilience to climate extremes; timely action for long lead-time measures and addressing major evidence gaps.

Progress with adaptation and building resilience in the UK

In June 2015, the seventh progress report of the CCC was published, along with the first assessment of the National Adaptation Programme, by the ASC. The CCC warned Government that ‘early action in the new Parliament is needed to keep the UK’s emissions reductions on track and adapt to climate change’. The Committee highlighted that many of the policies designed to lower future emissions are due to expire over the course of this Parliament, such as funding for low-carbon electricity and heat, encouraging low-emission vehicle use and energy efficiency. Lord Deben commented that ‘this Government has a unique opportunity to shape climate change policy through the 2020’s…Acting early will lower costs to businesses and the Exchequer. It will improve people’s health and wellbeing and create opportunities for businesses in the manufacturing and service sectors’.

The first assessment of the National Adaptation Programme (NAP; England only), by the ASC, made 36 recommendations to Government. Overall it called on the next iteration of the NAP, following the next CCRA, to be more strategic, focused and with clearer priorities, specific measurable objectives and comprehensive plans and policies to achieve them. The first NAP did not include any significant new proposals or reprioritising of resources and many actions had no fixed timetable for delivery. The assessment did acknowledge that most of the actions in the NAP were on track but stated that lack of monitoring meant it was not possible to conclude that England’s vulnerability to climate change was decreasing. The assessment raised particular concerns about the ‘healthy and resilient communities’ section of the NAP, stating that there is insufficient evidence to know whether vulnerability is decreasing and it could in fact be increasing.

The Government published its response to the progress report in October 2015. In its response the Government stated that ‘it is the role of Government to set the level of ambition, framework and rules but ultimately businesses, central and local government, communities and individuals must work together to reduce emissions and prepare for impacts.’ The response stated that the Government is committed to ‘increasing resilience to impacts of climate change, such as flooding… in a cost-effective manner’. The CCC had recommended developing a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk. The Government rejected any changes to policy in this area, stating that current planning policy does directly advise building away from the highest risk areas. Instead, the Government stated that we need to find ways to ‘address behavioural barriers to action on flood resilience at the individual property and community level, citing the Flood Re scheme as part of the solution.

One of the ASC’s recommendations to address possibly increasing community vulnerabilities to climate change was a set of ‘public awareness-raising’ actions in the next NAP, with a single Government Department (Defra) assigned responsibility for this. The Government response rejected this, stating instead that individual Departments should take responsibility for embedding climate change impacts and adaptation responses within their own awareness-raising work.


The UK’s progress on adaptation and resilience sits within a wider global policy context, most notably the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to which the UK is a signatory. On 30 November 2015, France will host the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris, with the aim of achieving a legally binding international agreement on climate, to keep global warming below 2°C. The agreement will enter into force in 2020, in order to facilitate a transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies. In this context, holding a seminar and panel at the RGS-IBG on the topic of ‘resilience’ is both timely and relevant.

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