Earlier this week, I was asked at short notice to take part in an event all about nature-based solutions and adaptation to climate change.  It was convened by Aspen UK which is working with the European Union to explore its new relationship with the UK.  The EU Ambassador to the UK spoke alongside Clara de la Torre (the European Commission’s Deputy Director General for Climate Action) who introduced the EU’s Adaptation Strategy which had been launched in February.

In preparation for the event, I read both the EU’s strategy and the UK’s latest Adaptation Action Plan (which covers the period of 2018-23 and is mandated under the Climate Change Act 2008).  What was striking by both documents was the recognition of the need for urgent action and the description of the range of activities that are underway designed to help the different jurisdictions adapt to changing climate. 

Yet, the critiques of both documents are also strikingly similar.  The European Environment Bureau said this about the EU’s strategy,

It is truly disappointing that the new Adaptation Strategy offers no measurable and binding targets, no concrete steps forward, nor a clear timeline.  This ignore the urgency of adapting to the climate crisis, the future of youth and the calls of the European Parliament that legally binding targets are required for the EU to become climate resilient.” 

The UK Committee on Climate Change reported in 2019 that:

The priority given to adaptation, including through the institutional and support framework in England, has been eroded over the past ten years.  England is still not prepared for even a 2°C rise in global temperature, let alone more extreme levels of warming. Only a handful of sectors have plans that consider a minimum of 2°C global warming – water supply, road and rail, flood defences and fl­ood risk planning for infrastructure.  Many national plans and policies still lack a basic acknowledgement of long-term climate change, or make a passing mention but have no associated actions to reduce risk. This includes aspects of agriculture, the natural environment, health, other infrastructure sectors and business… The UK Government must raise the profile, and strengthen the governance, of preparations for the impacts of climate change. It should ramp up resources and action on all of the urgent risks set out in the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, continue to take appropriate action for those classed as less urgent (but still important), and monitor the effects on climate risk over the next five year period.”

What’s more, despite the growing understanding of the value of nature to both help us mitigate the impacts of climate change (through storing or removing greenhouse gases) and adapt (for example by providing improved flood protection), neither the UK nor the EU currently have a coherent and costed plan to make the most of nature-based solutions.  There is good political rhetoric and ambitious leadership (as expressed for example through the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature) and there are now countless good examples of how to deliver good results for both wildlife and the climate (see for example our work at Medmerry, St Aidan’s, Wallasea or Haweswater), yet much more needs to be done to hardwire this into the thinking and operations of Whitehall and Brussels.

As the critiques are similar, so are the asks of both UK Government and the European Union, to:

  • Enshrine the recovery of nature in law through both the Westminster Environment Bill and new EU proposals for nature restoration (both subject to very popular campaigns – see here and here)
  • Ensure that the economic recovery from Covid-19 pandemic prioritises investment in the right climate/nature smart infrastructure (making good on the promises laid out in the EU Green Deal and made by the Prime Minister who has pledged to “build back greener”).
  • Radically reform agriculture policy to both restore the farmed environment and to help famers adapt to a changing climate. We are at a crucial stage in redesigning farm support in the UK and clearly we have not yet exploited the opportunity of leaving the European Common Agriculture Policy which colleagues in BirdLife are currently calling to be withdrawn because of its failings.
  • Invest in nature but in a way that tackles the climate and ecological emergency in an integrated fashion avoiding the consequences of poorly designed tree planting schemes. The UK Government has the chance to get this right through its Nature and Climate Fund targeting tree planting and peatland restoration while the European Union will need to bolster its grant support of similar initiatives across the region.
  • Take greater responsibility in working with Overseas Territories (such as the six UK Caribbean territories which are in the frontline of climate change facing ever intensive hurricanes) to develop strategic approach to developing adaptation plans, including protecting and restoring those coastal habitats which absorb wave energy, can reduce tidal surges and prevent flooding.

While the UK-EU relationship is changing, the nature and climate emergency is shared and we need politicians from both sides of the Channel to up their collective game.  And the time to do that is now.

*The image shows Medmerry on the south coast next to Selsey, where the Environment Agency led a £30m project to protect 348 properties while also creating 183ha of intertidal habitat.  The RSPB now runs this site and we were delighted when a pair of black-winged stilts bred there soon after the breach in 2014.

  • I think it is a great pity that your recent blogs have been so negative. There is so much being done by individuals in this country to increase biodiversity and reverse climate change, be it tree planting or rewilding. I am also not certain that you fully understand the changes being made to the farm subsidy systems. In 5 years time the changes will have a big impact on the way farms run, as they will not get paid just for owning the land. To get any payments they will need to demonstrate that they are looking after the land not just for profit but to protect the land and wildlife for a more sustainable future. I wish that it could be done overnight but you have to be realistic with the changes as many farms could go under if the changes are made too rapidly. OK the bureaucracy is horrendous and inefficient but there are some attempts to simplify it.
    Let's try and present a more positive spin on some changes, to encourage people and farmer (like me) to make positive changes for wildlife and the environment.