England must prepare itself for more floods and droughts, rising sea levels and greater pressure on water supplies due to climate change, the Environment Agency has said.
In a stark warning ahead of the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, the government agency claimed that adaptation measures – making sure the country is resilient to the inescapable effects of climate change – are now just as important as action to cut carbon emissions.
More and worse environmental incidents – such as flooding, water shortages and pollution – are now inevitable, since the natural world cannot adapt as fast as the climate is changing, the agency warned.
Its chair, Emma Howard Boyd, said it was a case of “adapt or die”, warning that England would face the sort of deadly flooding seen in Germany this summer if the country did not prepare itself.
Ms Howard Boyd also said that, despite the UK government’s intention to focus on adaptation at Cop26 next month, the issue was in danger of being “grievously undercooked” by the world at large.
In a gloomy report handed to Boris Johnson’s government, the public body said traditional flood defences would not be able to prevent all flooding and coastal erosion across England.
Population growth and climate change will also increase the demand for water, meaning that if no further action is taken between 2025 and 2050, more than 3.4 billion extra litres of water per day will be needed for resilient public water supplies.
The agency’s report warns that with 2C of global warming – below the level of warming for which the world is currently on track – England’s winter rainfall will increase by around 6 per cent, but summer rainfall will be down 15 per cent by the 2050s.
It also predicts that with 2C of warming, London’s sea level could rise by between 23cm and 29cm by the 2050s, and around 45cm by the 2080s. The sea level could rise by 78cm by the 2080s if global temperatures soar beyond 2C.
The Environment Agency said it was working with government, businesses and communities on boosting flood protection, and with watchdog Ofwat on water supplies.
The public body said it was also focusing on restoring and creating peatlands, wetlands and other habitats to create resilient places for wildlife, reduce the risk of flooding, improve water quality and boost access to green spaces for people.
Ms Howard Boyd said: “The climate crisis is global, but its impacts are in your village, your shop, your home. Adaptation action needs to be integral to government, businesses and communities too, and people will soon question why it isn’t.”
She added: “While mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation, preparing for climate shocks, that will save millions of lives. Choosing one over the other on the basis of a simple either/or calculation is like telling a bird it only needs one wing to fly.”
The Environment Agency leader said the country was “running out of time” to bring in effective adaptation measures, adding: “Significant climate impacts are inevitable. We can successfully tackle the climate emergency if we do the right things.”
The warnings in the Environment Agency’s third adaptation report come as Labour urged the prime minister to “start being a statesman” or risk failure at Cop26.
Mr Johnson has failed to take the summit seriously enough or be “candid” enough with the British public on the scale of action needed to address the climate crisis, the opposition party claims.
And in a broadside aimed at Mr Johnson’s decision to take a holiday in the run-up to the talks, Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband will say, in a speech on Wednesday: “It’s time for the prime minister to get off his sun lounger, be a statesman and make Glasgow the success we need it to be.”