If it keeps on raining the levee's gonna break

James Murray
clock • 3 min read
If it keeps on raining the levee's gonna break

The UK's climate resilience spending is running to stand still, providing further evidence that attempts to 'just adapt' to climate change will come at huge cost

Here's what those who argue you can 'just adapt' to the climate crisis don't get: you don't just adapt once; you have to keep adapting, over and over again, until the global economy either reaches net zero emissions or civilisation collapses - whichever comes first.

In the same week as The Lancet reported that heat stress wiped out four per cent of Africa's GDP in 2022, the National Audit Office (NAO) provided a more parochial example of what an era of constant climate adaptation means in practice. The watchdog yesterday published a report detailing how the government is set to miss its target to protect 336,000 properties from flood risks by 2027 by a massive margin. A combination of inflationary pressures, Covid disruption, and capacity constraints at the Environment Agency, means only around 200,000 properties can expect enhanced protection, a shortfall on the original target of 40 per cent.

This is an extremely nasty surprise for a government already under fire over the sewage spills that result every time it rains, especially given it doubled flood protection funding to £5.2bn for the period from 2020 to 2027. Following the disastrous austerity experiment that saw flood protection spending cut from 2010, the government had ratcheted up flood management spending since 2015 onwards and had hoped to deliver on its goal for 2027.

But as the NAO makes painfully clear, inflation means the capital budget will not stretch as far as expected. Worryingly, the flood defence maintenance budget is also under pressure. The report suggests that while 200,000 properties can still expect improved protection by 2027, a similar number could see protection eroded unless the maintenance budget is urgently topped up.

Meanwhile, escalating climate impacts, the on-going failure to deliver green farming subsidy reforms at scale so as to incentivise nature-based flood risk management schemes, and capacity constraints at a constantly stretched Environment Agency mean the UK's climate resilience strategy is in serious danger of being overwhelmed by the rising waters.

There is a substantial business angle here. It is not just homes that are at risk of flooding, commercial properties and key infrastructure are also in the firing line. More broadly, increased flood risks mean higher insurance premiums and supply chain disruption. The NAO report also pointedly highlights how businesses rarely provide funding for the local flood protection projects from which they benefit. A government serious about bolstering the UK's climate resilience would inevitably call on the private sector to make a bigger contribution to what will be a substantial bill.

Ultimately, the NAO report stresses there is no easy fix here. Yes, the government needs to deliver a longer term flood resilience strategy, greater flexibility and capacity at the Environment Agency, an improved planning regime, and increased investment so as to minimise flood risks. But those risks are going to keep on increasing as long as the climate continues to change.

We could try and 'just adapt' to climate change, but adaptation has its costs and its limits. The levees will eventually break. We're going to need a better plan.

A version of this article first appeared as part of BusinessGreen's Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen Intelligence members.


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