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As global leaders prepare to head to Durban for COP17 and discuss a global climate agreement, which so far has shown no significant progress, Chief Scientific Advisor for Defra, Professor Robert Watson, addresses the work being carried out in the UK on adaptation and discusses his thoughts on how the UK can challenge climate change


Climate Change Scenarios

There are two major elements within the climate change bill of 2008. Firstly, by 2050 we must reduce carbon emissions by 80%. Secondly, we must address adaptation options to the current situation. Even if we had a strong global climate agreement we would still have significant climate change between now, 2020, 2050 and 2080, so adapting is essential.  I believe a global accord to limit emissions is fading fast, so climate change is almost certainly going to occur at a significant speed as we move forward. Part of the climate change bill put before Parliament asked Defra to conduct a national assessment on the impacts of current climate change emissions on different public sectors. This involved a panel of independent experts who are looking at 11 different sectors including agriculture, human health and infrastructure. These 11 reports have been finished and reviewed and a concluding report has been created which addresses how the 11 sectors interact. This has been peered reviewed and will be laid before parliament in January 2012.

We are now beginning a second strand to this report which will address the adaptation options on all 11 sectors to meet the climate change challenges. These include such things as flooding, coastal erosion and agriculture changes. All 11 sectors are sure to have negative changes as a result of climate change, however through identifying these adaptation options we can get a greater understanding of the economic costs. This is being conducted via an independent panel in accordance with Defra and the engagement of other key government departments such as the DFT and CLG. When we started our assessment there were 700 different impact possibilities. This was then taken down to the 100 most important through the current knowledge base which has been acquired through scientific research conducted by defra, the ccc and independent bodies. The panel have looked at three plausible climate change scenarios and researched the impacts on the 11 sectors in 2020, 2050 and 2080. This research has now been translated into what adaption we need to make in this time period. The second phase of the subsequent report into adaptation of the 11 sectors of will address the economic impact. This economic phase will help us to understand the true cost of climate change  to the UK both now and in the future.

Mitigation v Adaptation

We have to approach both mitigation and adaptation with the same focus, however, there is a clear lack of political will at global level to really deal with climate change and this is causing the delay of much needed action. At Copenhagen 2009 ,Cancun 2010 and most likely in Durban this year,  global scientific advisors will keep insisting climate change temperatures must not increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre- industrial. Every piece of analysis I have seen or witnessed clearly highlights the fact we have little or no chance of meeting this target. I feel we are more likely to be on target for 3 or 4 degrees rise, 2 degree is the correct target, but we must be prepared to live within a 4 degree world. The global emissions are increasing yearly , 2010 was higher than 2009 and this pattern will continue as we move forward unless we take action now. We must not give up on mitigation and bury our head in the sand, however it is time to look at the implications of climate change and how we can adapt. There are areas which can be good for both mitigation and adaptation. For instance, better management of our forests will release less emissions into more atmosphere and through the growing of more forestry we can create resilience to future climate change predictions.


Personally I believe the issue of climate change to the UK is as a serious as health, education, and defence. There are opportunities within climate change. In order to reduce green house gas emissions we must transform to a low carbon economy. This will present two positive areas. The first of these is that we must produce our energy in a much cleaner way through renewable offshore or onshore. The second, is we must use the energy more effectively. This is currently evident in the energy efficient housing which  is being demonstrated across the country currently and promoted by departments such as DECC and CLG.

Climate Change allows the UK  to re- consider how all our sectors are functioning and see the opportunities for British industry to produce technology which can be used on a global scale and boost the economy. The longer we delay action the harder it will be to reduce climate change.  I understand we have a serious economic situation taking a grip across the globe, but I feel we must not delay action. Climate Change must stay part of the agenda now and not be forgotten for the next generation.

Professor Robert Watson will be speaking at Greening Government: Mainstreaming Sustainable Development on October 12th

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Written by Professor Robert Watson   
Monday, 03 October 2011 10:00
Last Updated on Monday, 03 October 2011 10:12

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