Hundreds of Britons could die in catastrophic floods similar to a deadly disaster in Germany earlier this year, the Environment Agency has warned.
It issued a stark “adapt or die” warning in a new report which says the country faces more floods and droughts, rising sea levels and greater demand on water supplies due to climate change.
Ahead of UN Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, the government agency is warning that adaptation – becoming resilient to the already inevitable effects of climate change – is just as important as actions to cut greenhouse gases.
It is a case of “adapt or die”, the Environment Agency’s chairwoman Emma Howard Boyd said, warning that deadly events such as the flooding in Germany this summer would hit here if the country did not make itself resilient to the more violent weather the climate emergency was bringing.
In a report to the Government, the EA said climate change would exacerbate the pressure on England’s water environment, which is suffering from problems such as pollution and increased water demand, and make it harder to ensure clean and plentiful water.
The agency alone cannot protect everyone from increasing flood and coastal risks, and traditional flood defences will not be able to prevent all flooding and coastal erosion, the report said.
There will be more and worse environmental incidents, such as flooding, water shortages and pollution, regulation is not ready for climate change and the natural world cannot adapt as fast as the climate is changing, the EA said.
Population growth and climate change will increase water demands and mean that, if no further action is taken between 2025 and 2050, more than 3.4 billion extra litres of water per day will be needed for resilient public water supplies.
Hotter drier summers, rising sea levels and pressures from development are are adding to water supply issues for people, industry, agriculture, recreational river use and wildlife.
With 2C of global warming – below the level of warming for which the world is currently on track – England’s winter rainfall will increase by around 6%, but summer rainfall will be down 15% by the 2050s.
The report warns London’s sea level is expected to rise by between 23cm and 29cm by the 2050s, and around 45cm at 2C of warming, or 78cm in a much hotter world by the 2080s.
The patterns of river flows will become more extreme, and wet days could become more intense.
The Environment Agency said it was working with Government, businesses and communities on flood protection and with watchdog Ofwat on water supplies.
And it said it was focusing on restoring and creating peatlands, wetlands and other habitats to create resilient places for wildlife, reduce the risk of flooding, improve water quality and boost access to green spaces for people.
Ms Howard Boyd said: “The climate crisis is global, but its impacts are in your village, your shop, your home.
“Adaptation action needs to be integral to government, businesses and communities too and people will soon question why it isn’t – especially when it is much cheaper to invest early in climate resilience than to live with the costs of inaction.”
She added: “While mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation, preparing for climate shocks, that will save millions of lives.
“Choosing one over the other on the basis of a simple either/or calculation is like telling a bird it only needs one wing to fly.”
She said despite the UK Government’s focus on adaptation at Cop26, the issue was in danger of being “grievously undercooked” at the summit by the world at large.
“Significant climate impacts are inevitable. We can successfully tackle the climate emergency if we do the right things, but we are running out of time to implement effective adaptation measures.
She added: “It is adapt or die. With the right approach we can be safer and more prosperous. So let’s prepare, act and survive.”
The warnings come in the Environment Agency’s third adaptation report, submitted to the Government under the Climate Change Act.