In the lead-up to the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, the World Health Organization (WHO) described climate change as the “greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” 

In the UK, health has been identified as one of the six priority areas in need of climate change adaptation policies, but also one of the sectors with “no plans” for long-term climate change. 

This Insight provides a short introduction to UK adaptation policy, with a spotlight on health. 

Assessing risk and the need for adaptation in the UK 

Some further climate change is inevitable, even with ambitious plans for greenhouse gas emission reductions. This means that some preparation or adaptation to the impacts is needed. 

The Climate Change Act 2008 requires the Government to assess climate change risks for the UK every five years, and then to develop an adaptation programme to address those risks. As part of this process, the Government must consider the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC). This was last done in 2017. 

The Adaptation sub-committee of the CCC (ASC) published the 2017 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report, which set out the priority risks and opportunities for the UK. 

The Government then published its Climate Change Risk Assessment followed by the second National Adaptation Plan (NAP). The plan covers 2018-23 and sets out proposed Government actions to address six priority risk areas. These are: 

  • flooding and coastal change 
  • health, well-being and productivity 
  • water shortages, including risks for the public water supply, agriculture, energy generation and impacts on freshwater ecology 
  • natural capital and biodiversity 
  • food production and trade 
  • new and emerging pests, diseases and invasive non-native species. 

The CCC also publishes progress reports to Parliament, most recently in June 2019. One of the key findings of the report stated: 

England is still not prepared for even a 2°C rise in global temperature, let alone more extreme levels of warming. Only a handful of sectors have plans that consider a minimum of 2°C global warming – water supply, road and rail, flood defences and flood risk planning for infrastructure.

The CCC identified health as one of 12 sectors that has “no plans” for long-term climate change. The Government responded in October 2019 setting out actions taken to date. 

How does climate change affect human health? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that while climate change may bring some localised health benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates, the overall effects of a changing climate on human health are “overwhelmingly negative”. 

Projected increases in temperature and localised extreme weather events (such as droughts, wildfires, floods) can result in changes to the availability and quality of food and water, the spread of infectious diseases, air pollution, and exposure to allergens. These can have a direct, negative impact on human health and may also disrupt the delivery and stability of health care systems. 

The precise impact of climate change on public health varies by country and region. Vulnerable groups, including children, older people, and those with existing health problems are more at risk than others. In the UK, the ASC identified five key risks to public health from climate change in its 2017 Risk Assessment Evidence Report. These were: 

  • flooding 
  • higher temperatures
  • emerging infections
  • poor air quality 
  • food and water safety. 

The diagram below illustrates the impact these risks may have on human health and how they vary by area. In the UK, over 80% of the population live in urban areas. 

A diagram to show potential impacts of climate change on human health in the UK
Image description and source
Reproduced with permission from the Environment Agency

What is being done to manage health risks?

The Government’s second NAP outlined its approach to the ‘Delivery of Health and Social Care Services’. It identified both the Heatwave Plan and Cold Weather Plan for England as examples of preparations to reduce health risks from climate change. It also referred to research that was underway to understand the health consequences of climate change, and work to increase flood resilience. 

Adaptations in other policy areas can have additional ‘co-benefits’ for health. Encouraging active transport, for example, could help to lower rates of obesity. The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change – an alliance of 21 health organisations – has produced a diagram outlining how other ‘co-benefits’ for health could be achieved

What more can be done? 

In its 2019 Progress Report to Parliament, the CCC was critical of both the “policy ambition and implementation” of the Government’s NAP, as well as its approach to tackling the health impacts of climate change. 

The CCC said that “little progress” was being made in planning for and addressing climate change risk in key areas, including illness and deaths linked to the heat and cold. It concluded that “longer-term strategies” were needed, in particular to adapt existing buildings and care facilities. 

This type of criticism is not unique to the UK. A 2019 report on health and climate action in Europe by the European Academies Science Advisory Council found that while “many adaptation and mitigation plans have been compiled across the EU, concrete objectives for health [were] often weak.” 

What has the Government said? 

In its response to the CCC’s report, the Government said it welcomed the Committee’s advice and was “strengthening” its work “to rise to the challenge”. 

The Government highlighted adaptation efforts that were already underway, including the Clean Air Strategy 2019 and investments to make cycling and walking safer. 

Further reading 

About the authors: Elizabeth Rough is a medical and health specialist and Sara Priestley is an environment and climate change specialist in the House of Commons Library.