Comment: Net zero action must also include adaptation

As you may have read in our February newsletter, SWM is convening an event on 23 March focusing on how organisations in our region can successfully implement activities to achieve net zero carbon targets that many have now set for their organisation or local area. We feel, given the importance and timeliness of this topic, that we had to set up a platform to enable organisations to share good practice and learn from each other on what may work best to achieve these ambitions. My colleague Tom wrote about this and provided background in a recent comment. Nationally we are legally obliged to reduce our carbon to net zero by 2050 . This is mirrored in the regional Sustainability Roadmap monitored by SWM meaning that our stakeholders should reflect similar or greater ambitions to give the region a chance of achieving this.

You may also be aware that I have always been one to push for improvement in climate change adaptation. I led on this area in my previous job and today I lead on adaptation-focused activity for SWM. Let me bring a little reality to proceedings – we are seeing more extreme weather. You don’t have to be a scientist or Michael Fish to see that. For many residents and businesses in Worcestershire and elsewhere in the West Midlands, the last six months have been a living hell. I watched with horror as the flood defences were overtopped in Ironbridge recently, but succumbed to the thoughts that I’m sure the residents there now have all the time – “this seems to keep happening.” In some interviews with residents, I heard incredible defiance on one hand but a sense of resignation on another. This isn’t right.

We also contributed to a project recently which involved interviewing residents from one frequently flood-hit area. Let’s just say I did well not to express my upset and anger at what these poor people have gone through in recent years.

I’m afraid that, whether we achieve our net zero ambitions or not, the UK’s climate will continue to become more volatile and extreme. Flooding has been the main example of this so far, but last year we had record breaking temperatures and the year before we had a summer drought. This is just the start. Yes, of course it is true that whether we meet our net zero targets regionally, nationally or globally or not could depend on the level of change that we will experience – a 1.5oC increase globally will be a mere trifle compared to 4oC, for example. Reducing carbon emissions has multiple other (knock-on) benefits aside from mitigating the impacts of climate change, such as reducing energy bills and improving air quality, but regardless, adapting to a changing climate needs to happen quicker and on a greater scale or else we will have more Ironbridge’s more often.

Most authorities setting net zero targets are doing so as part of their declaration of a climate emergency and, in many cases, producing fresh sustainability strategies. We are working with Wolverhampton and Worcester Councils now on the latter. My message to all these authorities is clear – please ensure that there is a clear pathway to adapting your authority, people and infrastructure to climate change as part of your net zero strategy. If you’re serious about addressing the climate emergency, adapting your assets is equally as important. My greatest fear is that climate adaptation is drowning in net zero hysteria.

I won’t go into the many ways to get started on adapting to climate change here, but do get in touch if we can help; I’d be happy to have conversation and signpost you to advice, resources and ideas. All I will say is that it doesn’t just have to be about hard engineering and flood defences; it can also be about things like:

  • Tree planting strategically, e.g. in high flood risk areas or in urban centres to reduce overheating
  • Working with local community groups to provide a severe weather / flood plan for their area
  • Sustainable urban drainage systems as standard for all new housing/commercial developments
  • Not building on flood plains (can’t believe I’m still having to say this…)

Naturally we need national leadership on this issue, but we shouldn’t wait for this to take action. The climate emergency movement, as commendable as it is, will only be effective if we get on with it, and include adaptation as a key outcome. The renewed buzz and recognised importance of climate change gives us a real opportunity to finally get this right.

Next time your train is cancelled or you can’t get to work because of flooding, consider the bigger picture. Adaptation needs to happen now otherwise we really will have let down our future generations.

Alan Carr, Senior Sustainability Adviser, SWM

Image: Flooding in Stafford, October 2019.