Adaptation in the UK: a decision-making process

Headline issue

Climate change is one of the most significant challenges we face. It will impact the UK population, environment and economy in many ways; including health, water supplies, food, ecosystems and damages from extreme weather. While reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is crucial to prevent long-term effects, adapting to climate changes is the only way to limit nearer-term impacts.

This policy brief focuses on the planning process for adaptation measures; in particular, how good adaptation decisions can be made with the information available today. We apply a framework with an explicit treatment of the role of risk information and decision factors to four adaptation case studies: flooding, the water sector, the food sector, and ecosystems/biodiversity. The analysis of the four case studies shows that while each present unique challenges in terms of risk identification and decision factors, they also exhibit similarities that can be used to draw out general rules for decision-making.

Key findings

  • In many cases a range of ‘no-regrets’ options are available.
  • Only in a few cases will a decision-maker be forced to make the difficult choice between potentially ‘high regrets’ options due to climate change uncertainties, where the benefits of options depend strongly on uncertain future climate states.
  • In many cases of long-lived decisions, such as public infrastructure projects, flexible options are available and can be shown to be desirable.
  • Adaptation is one part of a much broader decision making processes that covers sustainable development, land use planning, resource and risk management, and environmental sustainability. On this basis, we pose a number of key questions to be answered when planning adaptation activities:
    • How can adaptation measures be prioritised and what should be done first? There is no one-size-fits-all best strategy; prioritisation between projects and over time will depend on the nature of the problem, the interaction of risks and options and crucially, the objectives of adaptation.
    • How can flexibility be built into adaptation plans in order to deal with future uncertainty? Designing strategies that are robust to changes in the future not only reduces the risk of maladaptation but, in many cases, has the immediate benefit of reducing current vulnerability.
    • What does a well-prepared organisation look like today? In terms of preparedness, there are two important elements to consider: 1) the quality and comprehensiveness of adaptation plans and whether these plans are being implemented effectively, and; 2) understanding whether actions have been successful in achieving their objectives as laid out in adaptation plans.
    • What are the priorities for building a knowledge base for adaptation? Building a knowledge base can only aim to improve decision making in the face of uncertainty. In most cases, understanding current and past climate variability and non-climate drivers of risks can be of most immediate value in informing decision-making.
    • How can one make good decisions where analytical resources are constrained? Resource constraints can be an important barrier to good decision-making. The public sector has an important role in alleviating some of these barriers by providing guidance and examples. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to adaptation, there are generic rules and tools that can be applied to aid the process, which apply equally to simple and complex decisions.

Nicola Ranger, Antony Millner, Simon Dietz, Sam Fankhauser, Ana Lopez and Giovanni Ruta