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Comment: Less taking a NAP, more like sleepwalking into an apocalypse

The Government’s Third National Adaptation Programme (NAP) was published earlier this week. Here are our thoughts, with the help of more learned experts.

“This plan once again misses its mandate and sets out no overarching, ambitious climate change adaptation strategy.  It appears to merely collect together initiatives that are already happening across government in the hope that those actions will be enough.”

Dr Andy Russell, Lecturer in Environmental Science, Queen Mary University of London, and formerly a member of the Adaptation Secretariat at the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

“It was very clear from our analysis in CCRA3 that the UK is not yet prepared for the changes in climate that are already happening, let alone those to which we are already committed in the future”

Prof Richard Betts MBE of the University of Exeter and Met Office

“We are disappointed that the Government hasn’t used this opportunity to go further to build the UK’s resilience to climate change.  In another summer of gruelling hot temperatures, water shortages and wildfires, it’s hard to make sense of that decision. We are at the stage where promising further action is not enough.”

Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Prof Dame Julia King DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the Adaptation Committee of the CCC

“As the world is literally cooking or on fire, the UK Government has published its Third Adaptation Plan today. Whilst there are a few things to be positive about, it fails to meet the moment a crucial point in the decisive decade, when impacts are accelerating and we’re not on track for net zero”

Kit England, Senior Climate Adaptation Specialist

“The UK government’s lack of urgency in addressing climate impacts on the country’s vital networks is extremely worrying”

Institute of Civil Engineers

“Officials in Defra and in other departments have worked tirelessly on this; the issues with the NAP are not from lack of passion or effort by civil servants, but lack of political leadership”

Kathryn Brown, Director of Climate Change and Evidence, The Wildlife Trusts, and formerly Head of Adaptation at the CCC

“The Programme should be a wake-up call and yet it seems they are taking a nap.”

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the London Climate Resilience Review

“We’ve got the government talking about doing research to work out why and how buildings overheat instead of actually putting in place the measures to address it”

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP

“While access to Local Authority Climate Data could provide some good learning and understanding for councils, they crucially need the resources and money to take action on their findings”

Linda Taylor, environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association

Since I started my career in June 2008, my main focus has been on activity to try and accelerate climate change adaptation across individual authorities or the region as a whole. Were I not working in sustainability, I would have been a meteorologist, but I wasn’t anywhere near good enough at maths or physics to make the grade, so here I am. It partly explains, though, why I have always gravitated towards the climate adaptation side, coupled with my general scepticism that ‘everything will be fine’ if we just reduce carbon.

Since joining SWM in 2014, I’ve been lucky enough that much of my project work has focused on this topic. We have been funded by Defra, the Environment Agency, the Climate Change Committee and numerous local partners to deliver plans, tools, guidance and resources on adaptation, and to try and accelerate action by sharing good practice and building capacity. You can see some of these resources here.

But what has been the point?

We all know that without leadership, the country cannot effectively adapt to climate change. No matter how many resources we publish, there is only so many people we can reach, leaders we can influence, practitioners we can encourage to bring about change. I had hoped, therefore, that the third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3), published earlier this week, would (after the failure of the previous two) finally deliver a set of actions reflecting the urgency of the problem that climate change is now posing. Because climate change is now a present, not a future, phenomenon.

However, as you can glean from the quotes at the start of this post, people who are vastly more expert and knowledgeable on this subject than me are not happy with NAP3. It appears that its content and ambition is not in line with the required urgency. For what it’s worth, I can observe significant improvements compared to NAPs 1 and 2, but overall I agree with my colleagues’ views. It’s deeply frustrating that my 15 years of working in this area consistently feels like a waste of time. Nobody is listening.

I have produced a rough and ready table that pulls out text from NAP3 that I feel asks more questions than provides answers, or that lacks clarity. It’s quite long, bearing in mind I only read the content under the ‘action’ headings in detail. I’m not going to provide the full guts of my analysis here, although I’m happy to have a conversation with anyone interested.

There are some overarching points, though, that I’d like to share that worry me deeply. One is connected to the expectations of local authorities. NAP3 states:

“Local government plays a vital role in climate change adaptation, both proactively through strategic planning, and reactively through resilience and recovery. Local authorities combine strong local expertise, core decision making powers and strategic responsibilities with the ability to convene local partners from communities and businesses. Therefore, they are crucially positioned to drive forward climate adaptation actions tailored to their unique local circumstances.”

It also states:

“Many of the risks and associated actions will directly involve the role of local authorities.”

Both of the above I fundamentally agree with. However, local authorities do not have the resource, capacity or knowledge in most cases to launch into adapting their authority and their local areas, people and infrastructure to climate change. They do not have a mandate or any law that tells them they have to do anything, bar top-tier authorities responsibilities on flood risk. There is no mandatory reporting requirement. This is less than what was required of local authorities when I started in a climate change role at Staffordshire County Council in 2008, when at least we had national indicators to report against. It has gone backwards.

In the West Midlands, only one local authority has a dedicated Climate Change Adaptation Officer, with one other recruiting. There are still approximately 10 of our 32 authorities who do not have a dedicated sustainability or climate change officer to drive forward broader relevant activity – and many of those that do focus solely on Net Zero, as demonstrated by last year’s local authority sustainability benchmarking report.

To spell it out: how can central Government ask local authorities to lead and play a vital role in adaptation when they have stripped them of all resources over the past 15 years? It’s madness.

On a similar point to the above is with regards to the NHS. The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment states:

“The health and social care system across the UK is exposed to the climate hazards that will worsen as the climate changes including flooding, overheating, and water scarcity. There could also be increasing risks from high winds or storms, and changes in air quality.”

It also states

“Vulnerable people being exposed to high temperatures in hospitals, care homes and when receiving homebased care is of particular concern as temperatures across the UK will continue to rise and heatwaves become more common” and “health and social care assets including hospitals, GP surgeries, care homes and emergency services stations will become increasingly exposed to flooding without additional adaptation measures.”

And yet NAP3 states:

“NHS England will strengthen adaptation provisions within the NHS Green Plan Guidance by 2025 to support all Trusts and Integrated Care Boards to include adaptation measures in individual Green Plans by 2027.”

First of all, 18 months just to update guidance? Secondly, we know after very recent discussions that no-one at NHS England or in the Greener NHS team is leading on, or even has any real mandate to support, adaptation. This isn’t their fault – no post has been created, no funding has been found. And it certainly isn’t Trusts’ fault for not developing individual adaptation plans (although hearteningly some have anyway), despite the fact that their patients lives could depend on having implemented one.

This is why SWM, working with our Environment Agency colleagues, have decided to provide guidance for the NHS off our own back – we are going to be publishing a template adaptation plan and risk assessment for any Trust/ICS/ICB to use, and a compendium of case studies to show off good practice, by calendar year end. We are also running an online event on 12 September to get Trusts talking and learning about this topic. But to put it bluntly – we shouldn’t have to be doing any of this.

These points are just the tip of the iceberg, pardon the rather distasteful pun.

It’s difficult for me as an independent adviser to say to any organisation, whether you’re from a council, the NHS, a SME, education establishment or community group ‘you must adapt.’ You must, that much is true, but what I can’t provide any of the above is resource, money and capacity to do so. My magic wand is failing me, as are my powers of spontaneous materialisation.

But, one thing that is certain is that SWM will keep supporting our stakeholders with adaptation. We can support you too, so get in touch if you’d like more information. We’re doing our very best within the constraints of resourcing, powers, influence and legislation. But it often feels futile, and I’ve ran out of wall to bang my head against.

Alan Carr, Senior Sustainability Adviser

Supporting communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change in Warwickshire LeamingtonFloods2007

Access the third National Adaptation Programme

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