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Time to "Up the Ante" on Climate Change Adaptation

Chris Rapley

Chair of the London Climate Change Partnership


Professor of Climate Science at University College London


It’s great that China and the USA have ratified the Paris climate agreement. Until now the total number of countries to have done so stood at 24, representing just 1.08% of human carbon emissions. The addition of the world’s two largest emitters raises representation to 39%. This is big step towards the 55% (and 55 nations) required for the agreement to take effect. With expectations of a ‘surge’ of signatories in response, there is hope that the agreement will come into force later this year – far earlier than originally expected.

The bad news is that the ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs), upon which the agreement is based, fall far short of what is required to meet the aspiration to: “hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2C above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. They do not even address the goal to: “cut anthropogenic emissions and to achieve a balance with removals by sinks in the second half of the century”.

In the meantime, the planet is sending us warning signals. The global average temperature for 2015 was the highest in the 136 year instrumental record. Over the summer an extreme heatwave claimed more than 3000 lives in Pakistan and India. Severe drought in Ethiopia caused a shortage of food for millions, driving refugees towards Europe. Over the 2015-2016 winter, temperatures in some parts of the Arctic were as much as 6C above average. For a short period before Christmas the sea ice was melting in the vicinity of the North Pole. Winter sea ice coverage was the lowest since satellite measurements began nearly four decades ago. July 2016 was absolutely the hottest measured, and was the 15th consecutive month to break a record.

The Paris agreement commits its signatories to meeting every 5 years to review progress and consider the need to scale up their actions. Unfortunately, this process of ‘global stocktaking’ is not scheduled to begin until 2023. This is worryingly late. The results of climate science indicate that emissions need to peak by 2020 if there is to be a reasonable chance of achieving the Paris goals. The likelihood of this happening is low.


Source: World Energy Outlook 2014, graphic by Carbon Brief.


The consequence is that the 1.5C aspiration will almost certainly be breached. This is the conclusion of the majority of 250 climate scientists in a recent poll. Even the 2C ‘guardrail’ is in doubt. So whilst efforts to mitigate emissions remain the primary imperative, the level of threat that needs to be addressed by adaptation planning and implementation is rising.

The physical and economic impacts of severe weather and climate disruption have been thoroughly mapped out, as have the actions necessary to increase resilience. However, the recent Evidence Report of the UK CCC’s Adaptation Sub-Committee finds significant shortcomings and gaps in preparedness. ‘Upping the ante’ within all levels of government, commerce and civil society is evidently a pressing priority. Hopefully this will be reflected in the government’s 2017 Climate Change Risk Assessment and in an associated set of funded adaptation policies and initiatives. At a time when BREXIT is diverting massive effort and attention, and whilst austerity continues to erode the capability of departments to play their part, the possibility that it may not should surely set off alarm bells?


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