Climate Change Causing Floods?
Time after time, UK governments have denied the dangers of climate change
Some of the misery caused by the floods could have been prevented, had multiple warnings been heeded about how we use and protect our land
Two years ago, the south of England experienced its wettest period for almost 250 years as tidal surges battered East Anglia, threatening the country’s most productive farmland. Flimsy silt and clay flood defences, at least 50 years old and fast deteriorating, proved no match for the forces of nature.
Although damaging sea water seeped into some of the nation’s finest acres, disaster was avoided – just. “But we were inches away from something terrible,” said a senior director of Norfolk county council as he viewed what seemed a pending catastrophe. We had been warned.
Monitoring the effectiveness of the Environment Agency – the body responsible for managing flood risk from main rivers and the sea – the National Audit Office (NAO) recalled a year ago that these extreme conditions tested the country’s resilience to adverse weather and its consequences. Coastal flooding exacerbated by climate change, it noted, is one of the highest-priority risks on the UK’s national risk register of civil emergencies.
As an island that once prided itself as a model of farming efficiency, Britain – particularly England – is vulnerable. Some of our best land in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire lies at or below sea level. Much of it was drained by Dutch engineers through the centuries, with a final stretch near Kings Lynn – a six-mile water channel – only completed in 1950. Yet successive governments have been in denial about the impact of climate change, rising sea levels, and increasingly volatile weather patterns on these productive acres, literally the bread, cereal and veg bowl of Britain.
Ministers cannot plead ignorance. Four years before the NAO report, around the time of the 2010 general election, a lengthy study from the Government Office for Science, Foresight Land Use Futures, warned that 57% of our best (grade 1) land and 13% of grade 2 occupied flood plains. Not for nothing did it describe these golden acres as “an important asset in terms of national food security”.
Today we produce 62% of our own food, down since our 1984 peak of 78%. Alarmed by government complacency, the National Farmers’ Union calculated earlier this year that the country has the potential to reach 85% self-sufficiency, with higher productivity, more investment in research and development and, of course, greater emphasis on flood defences to withstand future tidal surges and rising sea levels. Do nothing, says the NFU, and domestic food production will assuredly fall below 50%.
It is, after all, only 62 years since a high spring tide, driven by a severe storm, engulfed the east coast of England as water rose to six metres above normal sea level, overwhelming part of East Anglia. More than 300 people lost their lives.
The Foresight report should have been a wake-up call, with its warning that either governments provide high levels of flood protection to resist rising coastal threats, or they abandon large tracts to the sea; presciently, it even cautioned of the threat from storm surges back in 2010. But what happened? One senior member of a lead expert group behind the report told me they had been “leant on” by the then coalition government to water down some of their recommendations. They were seen as too controversial and expensive.
One inescapable conclusion emerged from interviews I undertook in 2014-15 for my book Whose Land is Our Land with farmers, landowners and council leaders charged with co-ordinating flood defences: the indifference of a government seemingly in denial, wedded to a complex cost-benefit analysis that ostensibly puts the defence of property (one in six homes were at risk of flooding in England, even before the current deluge in the north) ahead of farmland protection.
What we have lacked is an informed debate on the pressures facing our land – increasing demand for food, energy, water and housing – when we should be adapting to and mitigating the impact of climate change. But that means planning ahead, prioritising resources and, yes, borrowing as a nation to invest in and safeguard our future – unlikely at a time when the very concept of planning, still less long-term investment, has become a pejorative term.
As things stand, as Amyas Morse, head of the NAO observed a year ago, the Environment Agency will face difficult decisions “about whether to continue maintaining [flood defence assets] in some areas or let them lapse”.
Daffodils in December?
Paris Climate Deal
The prime minister has been urged to intervene in planned cuts to solar power subsidies as a response to the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change at the weekend.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) is expected to announce a slashing of the subsidies for solar panels, potentially by nearly 90%, in line with a concerted push by the government in recent months to roll back green measures.
The move would be disastrous for the solar industry, businesses have warned, costing jobs and impairing the UK’s ability to meet its renewable energy targets. But a former Conservative energy minister said ministers might yet reduce the level of cuts.
In Paris on Saturday, governments including the UK signed a new global agreement on climate change, that would hold global average temperature rises to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, while further obliging nations to work towards a more stringent goal of a 1.5C limit. Scientists estimate warming beyond 2C is likely to mean catastrophic and irreversible impacts, while 1.5C would swamp many low-lying areas, including Pacific islands.
Amber Rudd, the energy and climate change secretary, said the UK did not yet have policies in place to meet the 1.5C goal, and its focus was on keeping under 2C of warming: “We remain committed to being as ambitious as we can, but at the moment it’s only the [policies to meet] 2C that’s operational. The 1.5C [goal], I would say, is aspirational.”
Critics pointed to the contrast between the massive subsidy cut planned and the stance David Cameron and his ministers took at the Paris climate conference. The Paris agreement was hailed by Cameron and other world leaders as a “historic step” to protecting the world from dangerous global warming.
Craig Bennett, chief of Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian that the prime minister should make no move to cut subsidies until he had asked his statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, how the UK would meet its obligations under the Paris accord:“They have to do that as a priority.”
If Cameron was to be taken seriously on his commitments made at Paris, Bennett said, he would have to show support for renewable energy. The UK is already far from meeting its 2020 targets on renewable generation under EU obligations, and further moves to cut support for solar panels – which follow the slashing on onshore wind support, the cancellation of a £1bn competition for a carbon capture and storage plant, and changes to planning rules that inhibit green energy – could imperil that statutory target further.
Leonie Greene, head of external affairs at the Solar Trade Association, which represents the industry, said the government’s domestic stance was in stark contrast to its posture on the world stage.
Greene said: “The critical importance of solar power in tackling climate change came up time and again at the Paris conference. Has the British government now realised the value of backing its superb domestic solar industry within an International Solar Alliance, expected to mobilise $1 trillion of investment in solar power?”
In Paris, Greene said, the Rudd had praised solar power as a technology that could help meet emissions targets. “The post-Paris world demands accelerated domestic action. The first big decision to be taken in the post-Paris world could set the tone for some time to come.”
The government argues that solar panels are falling in price, lessening the need for subsidies. But solar companies are concerned that sudden large cuts will scare off customers and investors, and say savings could be better achieved by a more gradual descent.
Lord Barker, the Conservative former climate minister and adviser to David Cameron, said: “The draft proposals, if left unchanged, would be potentially catastrophic. But I’m increasingly confident that the intention is not to leave them completely unchanged.”
Barker, who is also president of the British Photovoltaic Association and adviser to solar company Lightsource, said: “If Decc is smart, and Rudd is smart, they’ll listen to the huge number, the thousands of consultation responses, and come back with a more thoughtful response.”
Rudd said: “I think we are making it clear on renewables. I’m clear that we remain committed to them, and we’re always going to do it at the best value for money.”
Latest Paris News
|I’ve just returned from Paris, where exhausted delegates from 195 countriesagreed on the first ever universal deal on climate change.
There was no end of superlatives for the Paris Agreement. It would be a turning point in human history, transformative, momentous, historical, according to François Hollande, Ban Ki-moon, Al Gore and the many other dignitaries in the French capital.
This deal would be a game-changer and redefine future economic development, Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank president, told my colleague Fiona Harvey.
The atmosphere at COP21, where the deal was struck after several sleepless days and last minute haggling over a verb in the 31-page text, was unprecedented in two decades of climate talks, according to veterans of the negotiations.
When Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister and president of the talks, announced the deal’s adoption and brought down his leaf-shaped gavel, the halls of the summit erupted with applause. UN and French officials laughed, hugged, held hands aloft on stage and gave thumbs-up to the crowd. Even journalists clapped.
Not everyone thinks the deal goes far enough, and the carbon curbs it’s linked to are entirely voluntary. But, as Barack Obama put it, the Paris Agreement is the “best chance” we have of stopping dangerous global warming.
Paris Climate News
The international climate deal agreed in Paris is a turning point in history which signals the end of the fossil fuel era, it has been claimed. Measures agreed in the final draft include:
Long-term emissions goal
The agreement commits countries to begin reducing global carbon emissions “as soon as possible” and to have “net zero emissions” during the second half of the century – meaning that any CO2 produced would need to be captured and disposed of or offset by planting huge numbers of trees. This is another good development which is expected to spur investment in green energy but is weakened because the timescales are vague.
The rachet mechanism
This is an essential part of the agreement and is binding. It requires countries to step up their targets to reduce carbon emissions every five years – which is crucial because the cuts they have promised so far would only limit global warming to between 2.7C and 3C.
The rich countries have promised to funnel at least $100bn (£66bn) a year into poorer countries from 2020 to help them switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and to help protect them against dangers such as increased flooding.
An undisclosed amount of money will also be made available to help pay for damage caused by global warming.
Measuring and monitoring emissions
A system has been agreed to ensure countries are meeting their emissions pledges although there are questions over how effectively this will be able to establish whether some developing nations, such as China, are doing what they say they are doing.
This final stage will result in a revolution as to the way we power our homes, communities and transportation infrastructure. The necessary funding will allow Solar Botanic, in partnership with Brunel University, to perfect the last details of the technology and reach its definitive goals of energy output, cost, design and efficiency.
As the effects of climate change continue to threaten the sustainability of our planet’s fragile ecosystem, Solar Botanic has embarked on a mission toward a veritable paradigm shift in green-energy technology.
Electricity harnessed at an unprecedented efficiency from the combination of wind and solar energy.
SolarBotanic’s radical innovation provides the opportunity for a never-before-seen degree of energy autonomy, all the while significantly reducing cost, both financially and in terms of environmental impact.
In collaboration with the prestigious engineering department of London’s Brunel University, Solar Botanic has transformed an ambitious vision into a reality. The overwhelming success of the Energy Tree’s proof of concept has paved the way for a final step of research and development.
To create a low-cost, renewable source of energy capable of fully powering a home while enhancing its natural surroundings.
Inspired by the leaf’s sophisticated process of photosynthesis, the Energy Tree imitates and improves one of nature’s greatest phenomena of energy efficiency.