How to prepare for climate change

27 Jul 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Jul 2018

Here comes the sun... Pic: Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

A glorious summer has been soured by recent apocalyptic headlines about multiple future deaths as summer temperatures rise.

Scope sieves the evidence and examines the implications for Northern Ireland.

Climate change is happening, and temperatures will continue to rise. The challenge is how we adapt to this – and the reality is that there are opportunities as well as threats from global warming.

Westminster’s Environmental Audit Committee generated widespread publicity this week when it claimed that 7,000 people would die every year from heat-related deaths by 2050 without urgent government action.

The evidence to support this is contained in a report compiled by the London School of Tropical Medicine which estimates future climate-related mortality rates  based on projected rises in temperature to 2080.

The bad news is that more people will die due to heat, with the very old most at risk, typically from cardiac, kidney and respiratory diseases. But the report also highlights that currently far more people die from cold conditions in the winter, and that these numbers will decline over the same period as temperatures rise, not to mention, of course, falling winter fuel bills. It also points out the fact that as we continue to live longer there will be far more very old people during this period.

This does not mean we can afford to be complacent but the true picture is a little more nuanced than the newspaper headlines suggest. Ensuring that care homes are providing safe and comfortable environments for residents would be a good start to addressing the issue.

So what is happening to the weather? And what will the changes mean?

Firstly climate change is not a theory, it is a fact. In Northern Ireland the 2005 - 2014 decade was 0.7C warmer than the 1961-1990 average, that compares with an average 1C increase across the whole of the UK. Official predictions are that  our temperatures will increase by between 0.8 and 4.2C by the end of the century compared with the present day, with night-time temperatures during winter showing more pronounced warming. 

We are told to expect summer rainfall to reduce by up to 41% and winter rain to increase by 27% by the end of the century.

Northern Ireland is one of the cooler regions of the UK and is projected to remain so – by the mid century the highest temperature for Belfast is likely to be between 26 and 31C – a good 10C lower than London.

The warmer summer temperature and lower rainfall has positive implications for the development of tourism. A more reliable, pleasant summer will make the region far more attractive to visitors – especially given the choking heat which will be experienced in London and other large British cities.

This is one of the more positive benefits.

There are more according to the Northern Ireland Climate Change Risk Assessment  For example a prolonged growing season is good for grass production (so long as it is not, as now, accompanied by long periods of drought) meaning livestock can be grazed outdoors for longer. Trees also grow faster making forestry more attractive at a time when government is prioritising tree planting. Swathes of the countryside now regarded as marginal for agricultural use will become more productive.

The flipside is the impact on one of our favourite crops – the potato – which requires plenty of water to thrive.

But there is some good news here too. Since 2009 NI Water has managed to reduce usage by 15%, primarily by reducing leaks. As a result water supplies in Northern Ireland are projected to be adequate throughout the rest of the century. It is important to remember in this context that the recent hosepipe ban was introduced to cope with a spike in demand rather than a shortage of water.

Climate change affects the fishing industry too – with colder water fish gradually moving northwards, and warmer water fish encroaching on our waters. Cod catches are falling. Yet in 2012, 937 tonnes of sea bass were landed in the UK and the Channel Islands, compared with 142 tonnes in 1984. International commercial landings of species identified as warm-adapted ( grey gurnard, red mullet, hake) have increased 250% in the last 30 years. Experts are predicting a net gain for the fishing industry here by 2050.

There are some very big challenges too. Belfast has long been identified as being vulnerable to flooding. There has been considerable work to reduce the risk, but it remains and latest research demonstrates its vulnerability.

Despite this the trend to pave over front gardens – a major contributor to flood risk – continues unabated. There are no figures available for Northern Ireland but across the UK only 4% of UK paving sales were of permeable material. This is an obvious area for policy-makers to examine – as increasing winter rainfall will increase flooding risks. Government is encouraging developers to install sustainable urban drainage  (SUB) systems around new builds to help reduce the risk of sewage floods but more work is required on this, especially given the vulnerabilities to flooding in our main urban areas. In Scotland it is compulsory for SUB systems to be installed for all new developments.

Another area of concern is coastal flooding. Coastal erosion is increasing in Northern Ireland, not as rapidly as in the UK admittedly, but it does affect 20% of our coastline. The biggest challenge this poses is to those stretches of rail (mainly in the north and west) and roads which are close to the sea.

And here we encounter a serious difficulty. Given that coastal erosion is happening and will continue to happen there needs to be a strategy in place. Over the rest of the century sea levels will rise between 20 and 40cms, increasing risks. Yet no government department has a strategy in place to manage these risks.

This from the Northern Ireland Climate Change Risk Assessment: “Northern Ireland Executive’s policy on coastal protection is determined by what is commonly known as the “Bateman Formula”. Under this long-standing “Formula”, central Government departments have a responsibility to construct, maintain and repair the coastal defences in their possession. For example, the Department for Infrastructure’s Rivers Agency has powers to maintain sea defences that have been designated for the purpose of protection against flooding (but not coastal erosion) by the sea. DfI’s Transport NI has responsibility for coastal defences that protect the public road and railway network.”

There is a clear need for a co-ordinated strategy which looks at the risks, examines the economic viability of measures to protect the coastline and vulnerable roads and rail lines and then decides what needs to be protected and what can’t be – even if that means re-routing some lines or roads. This is not currently happening – and that seems unsatisfactory.

There is a debate about the causes of climate change. Some local politicians seem to think that the established scientific view is somehow wrong. That is a separate matter. The fact of it is beyond denial.

The challenge is to do all we can to adapt to what is to come: warmer, drier summers, milder wetter winters, rising sea levels and, generally, more extreme weather conditions.

There will be opportunities as well as risks. But the issues thrown up will affect all aspects of life: how we build buildings, what we grow on the land, what we fish in the sea, how we protect our infrastructure; guard against floods; protect the coastline. All these alongside the impacts we will feel from what is a global issue.

In that context it seems quite extraordinary that Northern Ireland remains the one part of the UK with no Climate Change Act.




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