There is no doubt that the planet is warming up: the first decade of this century was the warmest since records began in 1850, 0.2°C warmer than the preceding one (1991-2000) - itself warmer than any before it. (The increase for the past 100 years is around 0.75°C). Atmospheric and ocean temperatures continue to rise and we see declining sea ice, a rise in sea levels and a significant increase in wildfires. Disrupted by this warming, weather patterns have been replaced by nasty surprises: unexpected floods, temperature extremes, storms and unusual drought.
In 2009, global atmospheric concentrations of GHGs reached the highest levels ever recorded - the highest for 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is said to be 38% higher than pre-industrial levels and changes in land use have significantly increased methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Many natural systems are already being affected by temperature increases. The Arctic has warmed double the global average over the past century and the melting of glaciers, ice caps and sheets, and thermal expansion of the oceans, has, in turn, led to an estimated rise in average global sea level of 17cm over the last century. As a result plants and creatures die, the Gulf Stream is thrown into disarray, and the destabilisation of our natural weather patterns as we knew them continues.
Impact on the UK
Here in the UK the government completed its UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) in 2012, and updated it in 2017. It contains an overview of national risks to 2100. The CCRA identifies flooding as the greatest threat to the UK posed by climate change, with up to 3.6 million people at risk by the middle of the century. The current annual damage to properties caused by flooding is around £1.3 billion per annum, but this is expected to rise to £2bn-£12bn a year at today's prices by 2080 without intervention. Other issues highlighted by the report include:
- Increases in summer heat mortality
- Changes in wildlife migration
- Alterations in species communities as plants and animals fail to move fast enough to thrive
- Threats to food production
- Erosion from heavier rains
- Weather related threats to infrastructure and business locations
- Loss of working-time from heat stress
- Changes in fish stocks
- Wildfires in drier summers
The CCRA also concludes that, for the next 30 years at least, climate change is 'locked in'. This makes woodland creation all the more important in both helping to adapt to the new climate, and in reducing climate change beyond the next 30 years.
The 2008 Climate Change Act - committing the UK to an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2050 - was at the time and still is amongst the most ambitious emissions reduction commitments in the world. The Act requires three main actions:
- The setting of legally-binding carbon budgets on the way to the 2050 target. A carbon budget is a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period. Budgets must be set at least 12 years in advance to allow policy-makers, businesses and individuals enough time to prepare. The first five carbon budgets have been put into legislation and run up to 2032, by which point emissions should be 57% below 1990 levels.
- As an issue like climate change is too important to allow governments to mark their own work, the Act also required the setting up of an independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The CCC assesses government policy and progress, and helps prepare for the impacts of climate change by scrutinising the government's strategy for adaptation.
- The government is required to carry out a Climate Change Risk Assessment every 5 years, as referred to above.
Progress and plans
We are doing well so far. Emissions are down 42% to date, compared to only 3% across the G7 and in pursuit of a 57% reduction by 2032. This overall progress does hide one problem: 75% of emission reductions since 2012 have come from the energy sector, switching to renewable sources, whilst other sectors, such as transport, waste and land use, have remained largely flat. The government's latest plan - the Clean Growth Strategy - was published at the end of 2017. Areas highlighted for improvements include business and industrial efficiency (25% of planned reductions), more efficient homes (13%), low carbon transport (24%) and improved land use (15%).
The Committee on Climate Change's independent review of the strategy concluded the following:
- The Government has made a strong commitment to achieving the UK’s climate change targets.
- Policies and proposals set out in the Clean Growth Strategy will need to be firmed up.
- Gaps to meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets remain. These gaps must be closed.
- Risks of under-delivery must be addressed and carbon budgets met on time.
Of interest to Forest Carbon partners may be the conclusion reached by the Committee that rates of woodland creation are 67% below where they need to be for carbon reductions and for landscape adaptation benefits.