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Climate change adaptation refers to the actions required to manage the effects of unavoidable expected climate change. Mitigation refers to actions to prevent or reduce greenhouse gas emissions to address the underlying causes of climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines adaptation as “adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems” in response to actual and expected climate change.

While mitigation has historically been the focus of much action, adaptation is increasingly recognised as necessary to manage climate change: even if global targets to limit global warming are reached, there is scientific consensus that there will still be significant changes to the climate that require adaptation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations notes that adaptation also focuses on building resilience and preparedness for climate change. The Met Office predicts that as the UK climate changes, summer heatwaves and severe flooding will happen more often. Adaptation can help to ensure that sectors and infrastructure are well prepared to deal with these challenges.

This briefing provides an overview of the legislation, targets and governance that underpin adaptation in the UK, the current mechanisms and policy approach, and an overview of progress. It also sets out current adaptation action across key areas, including stakeholder commentary on this progress.

Legal requirements

Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK is legally required to adapt to climate change. The government is required to produce a climate change risk assessment to identify risks and a five-yearly national adaptation programme setting out how it will address these risks.

The third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3) was published in July 2023, and sets out actions that the government will take over the next five year covering the period from 2023 to 2028.

These actions include plans to increase the resilience of infrastructure to increasing temperature extremes, investment in the natural environment and shifts in crops and agriculture, changes that will need to be made to the built environment to protect public health, and shifts in business practices. Wider cross-cutting risks include impacts and adaptations required for supply chains, trade and finance.

Scrutiny of the government’s approach

The UK’s progress to implement climate change adaptation measures has been scrutinised by parliamentary committees, independent organisations and wider commentary from experts.

The independent Climate Change Committee is required to report on adaptation progress, and its 2023 progress report and shorter 2024 assessment of NAP3 set out a need for urgent action, including recommendations relating to governance, investment and monitoring. These include a need to make adaptation a fundamental part of all government policy making across departments, and to align the existing regulatory and policy processes with the next spending review.

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