New projections map “sobering” change in UK climate over next century

June 19, 2009 at 3:47 pm 1 comment

by Tony Grew

The Environment Secretary has made a statement to MPs about the publication of new projections for the UK’s future climate.

Hilary Benn told the House that the projections, which consist of more than 4,000 maps published on the DEFRA website, “give us a clear sense of what we might be able to expect over the next 100 years.

“They represent the best science we have on how our climate is likely to change; and they are a call to action.”

“The world’s climate is already changing,” he said.

“The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, including every year between 2001 and 2006.

“In the UK the 2003 heat wave led to over 2,000 excess deaths, and yet average temperatures that year were just 2° higher than normal.

“In 2006 the south-east experienced a severe drought. Eight million people in the region are dependent on rivers for their water supply.

“In 2007 we saw widespread flooding across the country, and a storm surge came within 10 cm of overtopping the defences at Great Yarmouth.”

Mr Benn said that the projections were “sobering” and show a range of climate changes up until the end of the century based on three possible greenhouse gas emissions pathways: high, medium and low.

“Broadly speaking, the world’s emissions are currently closest to the medium pathway, although there is still a risk that we could be heading for the high one.

“While we cannot be absolutely sure what will happen in future, and there are uncertainties—these projections are not a long-range weather forecast—they do show the probabilities of potential changes for the UK, and that is a future that we must avoid.

“The projections based on the medium emissions scenario show that by the 2080s—within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren—we could face an increase in average summer temperatures of between 2° and 6° C in the south-east, with a central estimate of 4°.

“They show a decrease in average summer rainfall of 22 per cent. in Yorkshire and Humber and in the south-east, which is already short of water, and an increase of 16 per cent. in average winter rainfall in the north-west, with increases in the amount of rain on the wettest days leading to a higher risk of flooding.

“They also show a rise in the sea level for London of 36 cm.

“Temperatures would rise even more under the high emissions pathway, which could mean peak summer temperatures in London regularly reaching over 40°.”

Mr Benn said that cutting emissions would not be enough.

“We must plan to adapt to changes that are now unavoidable—and this is a job for all of us.”

He said the government has doubled spending on flood and coastal protection since 1997 and took action to tackle water scarcity and to improve water efficiency.

The NHS now has a heat wave plan to protect vulnerable people from hot weather. The Department for Transport has reviewed its design guidance for roads, looking at drainage capacity and new road surfaces.

“All local authorities will in future have to consider adaptation when taking planning decisions, and from today all major Government investment will have to take into account risks from climate change,” he said.

“Today I am launching a consultation paper proposing the first 100 organisations, including Network Rail, the National Grid, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, that will be required to tell us what they are doing.

“I am placing copies of that consultation paper in the Library of the House.”

Shadow Environment Secretary Nick Herbert told the House he agreed with Mr Benn about the importance of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

“There clearly needs to be co-operation on climate change mitigation and adaptation measures at international level, but is it not essential that for Britain to be seen as a world leader, we cannot just go to Copenhagen and ask other countries to sign up to an agreement without being seen to be delivering at home?” he asked.

“Over the past decade, the UK’s carbon emissions have flatlined, and he himself has admitted that the Government will not meet their 2010 reductions target.”

Mr Herbert criticised people who claim that even if global temperatures are rising, it is a cyclical event.

“Is that not a dangerously flawed and even complacent view? Will he confirm that the temperature of the planet is already at its highest, and that the rate of change is accelerating?”

He called for a “radical new approach” to the sustainable management of natural resources, a regulatory framework that incentivises the conservation of water and the creation of new green spaces to help wildlife.

“We need to adapt in this country for temperature changes that we will not be able to avoid,” he told the House.

“Is it not the case that that aspect of the climate change agenda has been too much overlooked, despite the significant known risks of increased flooding and coastal erosion, the implications for our road and rail network and critical infrastructure, the loss of wildlife habitat and the impact on health?”

Labour MP Kim Howells urged Mr Benn “to resist the temptation to cover the superb wild uplands of Wales and other beautiful parts of this country with thousands of wind generators, not one of which would be built without a direct or indirect subsidy from the British taxpayer.”

The Environment Secretary said that there are places where it would “not be appropriate to put wind turbines,” but that the biggest obstacle to more onshore generation of electricity from wind power is planning permission.

Lib Dem Environment spokesman Simon Hughes praised the Met Office scientists responsible for the projections.

“They have produced what is probably one of the most significant pieces of scientific work to influence the debate for decades,” he said.

Mr Hughes said that food production must more self-sufficient in different parts of the country, “avoiding the areas that have been most at risk from flooding and might be at more risk in future.”

“We will have more people to accommodate and many more houses to build, but we need to be much more careful about where we build them, given what we know about the risks in Gloucestershire, parts of Yorkshire, places on the east coast and, indeed, along the Thames estuary.”

Mr Benn said the current assessment of the Thames barrier “is that it will see us to 2070.”

Tory MP Michael Jack said the projections “suggest that, for example, temperatures on the London underground might reach 47 °, although I think we might have got there already when travelling on the Northern line at 8 am.

“That raises important questions about the usability of major parts of transport infrastructure if the projections become reality.”

He called for “some form of adaptation fund to provide the long-term investment.”

Andrew Tyrie, Tory MP for Chichester, said the Secretary of State had placed “very heavy emphasis” on the projections.

“According to the Hadley Centre, there has been no global warming in the first nine years of this century so far,” he said.

“Did any of the models on which he is relying successfully predict that pause?”

Mr Benn pointed out that the century is nine years old.

“Courtesy of the ice cores in the Arctic and the Antarctic, we can go back 400,000 years and look at what has happened in the cycle of warming,” he said.

“It has gone up and down, but what has changed in the past 100 years is the rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

“The fact that nine of the hottest years on record here in the UK occurred in the past 15 years shows that this change is happening.

“There may be some who want to deny this—[Hon. Members: “There are!”] But they are in a diminishing minority.

“I am not a scientist and neither is the hon. Gentleman, as far as I am aware, but, given the overwhelming advice that we are getting from the scientific community about not only the uncertainty but the direction in which we are travelling, it would be a very imprudent Government who did not take serious notice and respond to it.”

Tory MP Peter Lilley then spoke up, as a scientist.

“The Secretary of State will know that, as a physicist, I do not dispute the physics of global warming—that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations will produce, of itself, about a 1° rise in global temperatures,” he said.

“The cause for concern is the assumption in the models, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) referred, that positive feedbacks will amplify the effects.

“Given that the models did not forecast the decade of stability, or slight decline, in world temperatures, have they been modified in the light of those facts?”

Mr Benn said he would ask scientists at the Met Office Hadley Centre to respond to Mr Lilley’s point.

“I know from talking to them that they have done their work with care and thoroughness,” he said.

“They have brought together a range of models and they are very open and honest about the uncertainties—it is important to be aware of them—as the results are presented.

“Equally, however, there is not much doubt about the direction in which we are heading, which is the direction for which we have to plan.”


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Colin B  |  June 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    To quote “When we talk about climate here, we are using its technical meaning, to describe average weather over 30 years (a standard time frame).

    So after seeing just 30 years of data (without reference to any other 30 year periods?), the report is happy to project 70 years into the future to 2080?

    Odd indeed. Do please remember that the trend is not always your friend, as some would have you believe.


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