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Adapting Institutions to Climate Change

Date: 2010

Evidence type: Policy

Organisation: Royal Commission Environmental Pollution

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This report is about moving institutions towards anticipatory, planned but flexible adaptation responses. It is hoped that it will stimulate a wide range of organisations to consider urgently and more thoroughly the potential implications of a changing climate for their work and the importance of building adaptive capacity. RCEP reiterates its conviction that the scale of the challenge has not yet been sufficiently appreciated. The potential costs of ignoring adaptation have not been sufficiently considered, and the potential benefits of adaptation have not been sufficiently explored. If institutions at all levels now address the need to build adaptive capacity, there is still time for the UK to be well positioned to cope with a future climate which will be considerably more challenging and disruptive. 

Key Messages

One of the main constraints on adaptation is the absence of enabling mechanisms.

A simple example given to the Commission involved another tree-planting scheme in Wharfedale, which could manage flood risk if 5% of the catchment was planted with trees but only if trees were planted in very specific areas of the catchment. There is at present no mechanism by which such a scheme could be made to happen other than by obtaining agreement from all relevant landowners. 


Nature conservation provides a more subtle example, because mechanisms to designate sites for species that are likely to arrive as the climate changes (i.e. providing nature reserves for species that are not there yet, or a 'space for nature') do not currently exist. Compulsory purchase powers, which could theoretically play a role in both these cases, are normally used for the purpose of building developments rather than for soft engineering or green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure; Trees; Water courses
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing riverine flooding; Helping other species to adapt

The land use planning regime has a crucial role to play in promoting adaptation to climate change in all parts of the UK.

Planning authorities will create specific policy, on flooding or biodiversity for example, which may make direct reference to climate change. For example, recently updated advice on nature conservation issued by the Welsh Assembly Government provides for: 'plans to accommodate and reduce the effects of climate change by encouraging development that will reduce damaging emissions and energy consumption and that help habitats and species to respond to climate change'. 


World Class Places, the Government's strategy for improving the quality of place, identified the need for a step change in the provision of green infrastructure to help urban areas adapt to climate change, and committed the Government to updating planning policy to provide a clearer message to local authorities about what is expected of them.  


RCEP are concerned that the high-level principles are not routinely part of planning practice. Development planning and, more particularly, the review and updating of plans can be slow relative to the developing science of climate change.

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing riverine flooding; Managing surface water; Helping other species to adapt

Launched in 2003, ESPACE is a five-year project led by Hampshire County Council and funded by the European Commission's north-west Europe INTERREG IIIB Programme, the ESPACE Partnership and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

ESPACE recommends how adaptation to climate change can be incorporated into spatial planning policies, processes and practices. Concentrating on water management issues, it was one of the first projects to focus on increasing awareness of the need for spatial planning systems to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to begin to provide some of the necessary policy guidance, tools and mechanisms to incorporate adaptation into planning systems and processes.

Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing water supply; Managing surface water

The governance arrangements for water seek to achieve several aims, including:

- Protecting water quality - in particular the ecological and chemical quality of water bodies covering surface water - lakes, rivers, reservoirs, coastal waters and the sea - and groundwater); 

- Managing water as a resource - ensuring that there are adequate, wholesome supplies of water for domestic use and for industry, and proper management of wastewater, and (for domestic consumers) ensuring that monopoly suppliers do not exploit their position and that water is affordable. Water is also a resource for recreation, navigation and fishing; and 

- Managing the threat of flooding, through land and surface water drainage, and flood protection works.

Green infrastructure type
Water courses; Water bodies; Wetlands; Coastal habitat
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing water supply; Managing riverine flooding; Managing coastal flooding; Managing surface water

Case Study: The River Glaven and Catchment Sensitive Farming

A significant challenge for water purification in the future will be dealing with surges from sudden rainfall events. This increases the amount of pollutants and sediment that need to be removed from water; and it is a source of diffuse pollution, as opposed to pollution from a single, identifiable source. 


In the North Norfolk region, one challenge is agricultural run-off. Catchment sensitive farming is an initiative sponsored by Defra and co-managed by Natural England and the Environment Agency. They work with local farmers to tackle diffuse pollution by managing run-off, by promoting practices which enhance soil structure and reduce erosion, and by controlling the use of fertilisers and pesticides in a way that is sensitive to the ecological balance both of the immediate area and further downstream. One potential difficulty is that there is no security of long-term funding as Catchment Sensitive Farming is a five-year programme, launched in 2007. 


The Commission visited one such scheme in the River Glaven catchment in North Norfolk. The Commission also met the Glaven Conservation Group, a local volunteer organisation. The Group's work demonstrates the potential role of local, small-scale activists in driving adaptation behaviour, as they are able to bring different actors together. By removing banks to open up flood meadows, the Group has helped change the riverside to make it flood more naturally, thereby reducing the risks of more damaging floods downstream.

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure; Water courses; Agricultural land
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing riverine flooding; Reducing soil erosion

Flood risk management requires co-operation on the part of a number of authorities.

Decisions made to manage water to minimise flood risks may have implications for nature conservation, with potential for synergies and also tensions - and the latter are likely to become more rather than less acute as the climate changes. 


The Pitt Review was published in June 2008. The first recommendation was that adaptation to climate change, along with mitigation, should be a priority in Government programmes. 


Local authorities in England and Wales will be required to develop local flood risk strategies, covering flood risk from surface water run-off and ordinary watercourses. 


Local authorities are to be given responsibility under the Flood and Water Management Bill for surface water flooding, a major source of flooding in 2007. The central role of local authorities in surface water flooding reflects the growing need to manage flood risk through the use of sustainable drainage systems by soft engineering and effective management of the urban infrastructure, and not just through specific flood defence works.

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure; Water courses; Wetlands; Grassland, heathland and moorland
Climate change role/function
Non-specific mitigation role/function; Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing riverine flooding; Managing surface water; Helping other species to adapt

The Environment Agency takes the lead on strategic coastal management, shoreline management plans and coastal risk management in England and Wales, and the nature conservation bodies in England, Wales and Scotland (Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage) have the remit for wildlife and habitat conservation in both coastal and marine sites.

Making Space for Water outlined a strategic shift away from the use of hard coastal defence structures, which were becoming more expensive to maintain, to a more holistic, risk-driven strategy including managed realignment 


Generally, local planners will work to a time horizon of around 20 years, which may be short in relation to the longer timescale required for thinking about climate impacts.

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure; Coastal habitat
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing coastal flooding

The underlying policy for nature conservation has gradually changed over the years but these changes have not been explicitly recognised in legislation. The original thinking focused on the concept of ‘natural beauty’ expressed in terms of scientific or aesthetic interest. Most recently the concept of ecosystem services has gained credence and nature conservation bodies have changed their agendas accordingly.

However, there has been little consideration of what these different approaches actually mean for the future of biodiversity. Existing legal and institutional arrangements are being used to deliver very different objectives without any fundamental assessment of their appropriateness.  


In recognition that climate change is an important challenge facing biodiversity in this country, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced a review of ecological networks in England which may go some way towards addressing the appropriateness of existing protected area mechanisms 


Furthermore, 'Securing Biodiversity' is a new framework in which Defra and its non-departmental public bodies are seeking to address the conservation needs of individual species, wherever possible through habitat management - and this brings with it a range of further benefits from the ecosystem services that those habitats provide. This is complemented by the landscape-scale approach to habitat restoration that is now being taken (in part) to enable biodiversity to adapt to climate change 


Climate change will result in dramatic changes to our flora and fauna, in terms of species composition, abundance and distribution. Thinking on how to deliver conservation under changing environmental conditions has focused on the need to be flexible and has tended to lead to discussions about landscape-level measures, wildlife corridors and a 'space for nature' - a protected space where organisms can find refuge in a changing world. There has been no discussion of what society might want from biodiversity in the future; for example, how much need will there be for open recreational spaces, and will protected areas be valued if they attract species that are deemed harmful?

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Helping other species to adapt

Over recent years, nature conservation bodies have spent considerable time and money assessing the conservation status of their protected areas and taking action to improve and/or maintain that status.

Conservation bodies are responding accordingly. The Wildlife Trusts' 'Living Landscapes' initiative, for instance, places the protected area network in a broader landscape context, enlarging, improving and joining protected areas together. The national conservation agencies have responsibility for conservation at the landscape scale as well as for the protection of designated sites. Agri-environment funds from Pillar 2 of the Common  

agricultural Policy supported by strategies for catchment sensitive farming will provide resources to integrate biodiversity into broader land use strategies that build resilience to climate change.

Green infrastructure type
Agricultural land
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Helping other species to adapt

The Exmoor Mire Restoration Project

Exmoor was draining heavily following the digging of drainage ditches (known as grips) in the 20th century. Draining changed the moorland habitat, damaging biodiversity, and allowed water to flow off the moors faster than before, leading to rapid rises in river levels in times of heavy rain. The solution was to block these drainage channels, which has reduced the flooding problems, improved biodiversity management and had the additional benefit for the relevant water company (South West Water) that Exmoor is now acting as a water store that regulates flow throughout the year. Another benefit for the water company of reduced flooding is that there is less need to purify water that is carrying agricultural run-off or sediment. Here, as elsewhere, it will be important to monitor progress to be sure that such ongoing benefits do indeed flow from the project.

Green infrastructure type
Wetlands; Grassland, heathland and moorland; Agricultural land
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing water supply; Managing riverine flooding; Managing surface water; Reducing soil erosion; Helping other species to adapt

The uneven distribution of the burdens of climate change is most devastating and most obvious at a global level, but it is also apparent at the national level. This distributional dimension of climate change is especially acute in respect of flooding and coastal erosion, although it may arise elsewhere, for example, in increased water scarcity or reduced access to blue or green space.

Green infrastructure type
Non-specific green infrastructure
Climate change role/function
Non-specific adaptation role/function; Managing water supply; Managing coastal flooding
Document Analysis


Level of document
Geographical area to which document refers
United Kingdom
Relevant to climate change...
Is it relevant to other (non-climate change) benefits of green infrastructure?
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