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Analysis paper

Adapting to climate change: How the UK can better manage a rapidly changing environment

Government must make managing climate change a priority.

Flood defences
A flood defence system in action in England after heavy rain. Storms have become increasingly common in the UK in recent years.

The impact of climate change is beginning to be felt in the UK. Despite this, successive governments have failed to prepare the UK to adapt to these changes. New housing developments are built in areas at future risk of flooding, while much of the UK’s housing stock is poorly prepared for hotter temperatures. 

While climate change mitigation attracts far more attention – and investment – relatively little attention is paid to adaptation. The government's National Adaptation Plan (NAP3) was a meaningful improvement on previous attempts, but lacked urgency and failed to provide an overall vision for what a well-adapted UK would look like. This makes it harder to set out a clear strategy. 

Based on our own research and interviews with experts in climate change and policy making, this report explores the options for bringing adaptation into the foreground of UK government policy making. It recommends:

Government embeds adaptation in core financial control mechanisms by:

  • Making it clear that a core part of accounting officer responsibilities is ensuring that future spending is value for money, after taking account of potential climate change impacts.
  • Ensuring that questions on adaptation in Infrastructure and Projects Authority ‘gateway reviews’ are properly asked and answered.
  • Making adaptation a cross-cutting theme in the next spending review and ensuring that it is aligned with the NAP3 process.
  • Ensuring any future ‘net zero tests’ used to judge planned policies’ impact on the UK’s net zero goals include adaptation as well as mitigation.

Government develops indicators to enable governments, parliament and the public to monitor whether government action is helping to reduce future risk to acceptable levels.

  • These should be in place in time for the Climate Change Committee’s 2025 progress report and ideally would be developed jointly by the governments of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Parliament should improve its scrutiny of adaptation to ensure that progress is being made at the pace required to minimise both harms and long-term costs.

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