Report says hospitals and power station planners must pass 'climate adaptation test' akin to health and safety regulations
Sonia Van Gilder Cooke
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 March 2010 07.00 BST
Hospitals, the energy industry, government agencies and other institutions should put new policies and programmes to a "climate adaptation test" akin to to health and safety regulations, according to a new report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
The report, titled Adapting Institutions to Climate Change, says the test is needed to ensure new projects take into account increasingly variable and extreme weather, as global warming continues. Candidates for adopting the test include coastal industries such as ports, power stations and oil installations – which would have to withstand storm surges and rising sea levels – and hospitals, which it says should expect a rise in admissions during heatwaves.
The chair of the commission, Sir John Lawton, said: "If we don't get on with it now, the future is likely to be unpleasant and expensive." He denied that the test amounted to more government red tape, arguing that inaction would cost more than action.
The report adds that such a test would aid long-term planning in areas where it is especially important, such as energy. "In thinking about where you put the next generation of nuclear power stations, an adaptation test would require you to say, 'Is it a sensible place to build another power station and how will we protect it against sea level rise?" said Lawton. "You don't just put the new nuclear power station there because that's where the last one was."
The commission, an independent on influential body established in 1970 to advise the government on environmental issues, warns that UK institutions are woefully underprepared to meet the weather challenges of the future. Lawton said: "Recent flooding events and icy winters have exposed gaps in planning and infrastructure that suggest we're not even able to cope with the kind of extreme weather events we currently have, never mind the kind of extreme weather events we're going to be having over the next few decades."
The commission said that while projects such as the Thames Barrier had successfully built in adaptability, most institutions haven't even considered it – a situation that Lawton views as dangerous: "We're looking at a scenario where people get killed and injured," he said.
Commission members drew a parallel to now common health and safety assessments. Lawton observed that while Health and Safety "stops bad things that happen tomorrow", the benefits of climate adaptation operate on a longer time scale. "We're paying now for benefits for our children and grandchildren," he said. "The effects are less immediate, but they're no less serious."
The report recommends that the Climate Change Act of 2008 be amended to require government agencies to address climate change adaptation, and that a system be put in place to ensure agency accountability. The commission rejects the idea, however, that the test is unnecessary government bureaucracy: "If you put houses on the flood planes, you have to accept that, in the long run, there's a real risk of devastating people's lives," said Lawton. "The question is: as a society, can we afford not to do it?"