Climate adaptation: an essential approach.


William Naismith, Graduate Sustainability Consultant

Nature-based solutions.

At the end of last month, the UN Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS) – a gathering of governments, international organisations and businesses – was held virtually. Delegates highlighted the transformative consequences of bolstering climate resilience, such as retrofitting mechanical ventilation, for lives and livelihoods.

In his closing remarks, COP26 President Alok Sharma stressed that on cross cutting climate issues, we must “increase the scale and the pace of our adaptation.

The role of adaptation.

Adaptation is one of the three tenets of climate change action alongside mitigation and climate justice. Originally disparaged by some campaigners as an ‘admission of defeat’, climate change adaptation is acknowledged as an essential tool in reducing the threats and realising the opportunities from current and future climate change, such as overheating.

Climate change impacts.

Around 4.5 million UK homes overheat every summer, according to the UK Housing: Fit for the Future report. Higher internal temperatures reduce people’s thermal comfort, impacting sleep patterns, and resulting in an economic cost via reduced productivity.

Even if all emissions ceased today, global temperatures would continue to rise for around 30 years, and today’s problems will worsen as the planet continues to warm.

The human cost of overheating is also expected to rise, with research by the Climate Change Committee estimating that the annual heat-linked UK death rate could increase from 2,000 to 5,000 by 2050. In response overheating risk assessments have been developed, requiring new homes to be well ventilated and to minimise solar gains.

A local approach.

Unlike mitigation, which requires individuals around the world to do broadly similar things, adaptation requires local responses to threats. For example, managed retreat or stilts will protect buildings against coastal flooding in Suffolk or the South Pacific but will not prevent overheating in London. Also, unlike mitigation, where individuals cannot easily see the benefits of their actions (e.g. giving up flying), the benefits of adaptation accrue to the individual with greater immediacy (e.g. flood defences can save your house). Given the unmet, urgent and increasing need for adaptation, it seems certain that support will need to be available for those who cannot afford to pay (often the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change).

The Climate Adaption Summit saw the launch of the Adaptation Action Agenda. Promising to speed up adaptation efforts, it is an instrument for ‘promoting, guiding, monitoring and sharing experience on climate resilience, as climate change is both a ‘future threat and a present reality’.

Designing for the built environment.

Pressure from investors and insurance companies has established climate change risk assessments and reporting standards. ISO 14090 is the first standard concerned solely with climate change adaptation and provides guidance on tools, adaptive capacity and systems thinking. BREEAM credit Wst 05 mandates a systematic risk assessment, from which the building design team can develop solutions for ‘resilience of structure, fabric, building services and renewables installation’.

Climate change will turn unprepared buildings into ‘stranded assets’. Around 80% of today’s building stock will still be in use in 2050. Retrofitting measures to adapt to climate change are unavoidable and will require innovation in the building industry. Conservation rules will make this even more complex for the UK’s heritage buildings.

As professionals in the built environment, we will have an important role in leading the change. We understand how, under the right conditions, nature-based solutions can create positive outcomes for climate change adaptation, biodiversity and human wellbeing.

Nature-based solutions involve working with natural and living systems to tackle societal challenges. Green roofs and landscaping can mitigate against the urban heat island effect, provide sustainable urban drainage and offer a connection to nature.

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