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Adapting to climate change in Greater Manchester

Jeremy Carter, Research Fellow at The University of Manchester’s School of Environment and Development, and co-director of the university’s Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy:

Tell us about your recent talk at the World Symposium on Climate Change Adaptation.

My talk was on the topic of spatial planning, and the linkages with adaptation.

Spatial plans are long-term in nature, and the need for adaptation responses are often long-term, but there aren’t many long-term mechanisms in place — which is why spatial planning is so important.

Spatial planning is an important measure [of adaptation], but there are also barriers in place which limit its potential, such as the fact that planning legislation doesn’t always include adaptation issues. There’s not a huge amount of guidance to planners working with local authorities on adaptation and how to build that in.

The resources available to local authorities are also increasingly limited, in terms of both finances as well as capacity and knowledge.

The question is what can we do to support progress? So it’s important to build awareness of the role of spatial planning as an adaptation measure, but also to increase skills within local authorities to take action locally.

What can Greater Manchester learn from other countries?

It’s very clear that the issue of adapting to climate change is much more challenging in some areas than it is in a city like Manchester.

The scale of the threat is greater in many countries, particularly related to drought and sea-level rise. And in many of these countries where the impacts are the greatest, the capacity to act is also lowest.

Nevertheless, these countries are making progress. I think that’s because they’re at the frontline of this so they have to act. Small actions can have a big impact to problems in countries in Africa and Asia for example.

Here we don’t have the same perception of the level of threat because — yes we’ve had severe floods nationally — but there hasn’t been anything major in Manchester for some decades.

For that reason, and also for the fact that the issue of adaptation isn’t high on many people’s agenda, the degree of progress is perhaps less. [Other countries] are reacting to their current exposure; we’re perhaps not being proactive to future threats.

You were involved with EcoCities, a joint initiative between the University of Manchester and Bruntwood, looking at how we can adapt cities to the challenges and opportunities that a changing climate presents.

The active research on EcoCities finished several years ago but we are maintaining awareness of the problem and keeping the issue on people’s agendas.

We recently secured funding from the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 programme. The project’s called RESIN. In effect it’s an extension of EcoCities; it’s about building understanding of climate change threats and responses. This new project has got Manchester as a case study city and as a funded partner.

Mark Atherton, director of environment for Association of Greater Manchester:

How well prepared is GM for climate change?

GM has come a long way in preparing for climate change. Through its efforts in working with academic and statutory partners it has recognised and understood its risk. 

It has embedded the adaptation imperative within relevant key GM and local district strategies and it continues to demonstrate leadership and political commitment to this agenda.

However there is limited resource committed to going the next step to taking physical action to increase GM’s climate resilience. 

Areas where this does happen though are in relation to flooding and some of the more wide ranging natural environment / ecosystem services improvement projects which do occur within the city region.

Driving real action and embedding necessary risk reduction and behaviour change across the conurbation and within its communities and businesses is the next step and the real challenge going forward.

What measures have already been put in place?

Specific climate adaptation projects are few and far between. Most of the beneficial projects either address current risk or will provide some adaptive capacity by virtue of some other multiple benefit arising from the project.

For example, flood defences improvements such as those being put in on the lower Irwell in Salford will increase protection now and in the future for certain communities.  

Also habitat and river naturalisation projects (such as the red river blue project on the Medlock) and general urban greening will, despite being predominantly progressed for natural environment reasons, increase urban cooling effects and increase the resilience of the habitats and species themselves to climate change.

Is there support at the political level for adaptation?

There is broad recognition of the climate risks and need for adaptation to a rapidly changing climate both across GM and within the districts. 

High levels of political support for this agenda exist, including in Salford where long term efforts to reduce the risk of flooding to vulnerable communities is culminating in the construction of a second flood storage basin.

This commitment is also being demonstrated visibly within the city region through initiatives such as climate local and more recently with us becoming signatories to EU’s mayors adapt and the UNISDR’s resilient cities campaign.

Though the capacity of GM to prioritise and resource the necessary action on the ground to increase physically increase its climate resilience is potentially more challenging when set against the current budgetary constraints affecting the public sector in GM and beyond.

What is the biggest challenge facing local GM proponents of adaptation?

Climate adaptation and taking action requires a local understanding of the climate impacts, the risks and the potential solutions.

Understanding and working through these issues is not something all those at risk have the ability to do for themselves.

Climate adaptation therefore becomes a case of translating issues and information and supporting local conversations in ways which identify and help people take action to increase their resilience.

This, a lack of statutory drivers requiring action on adaptation and a less-than-clear business case for investing in increased resilience is the biggest challenge faced by GM in increasing its adaptive capacity.

What are the areas requiring the most urgent attention?

Climate impacts are expected to affect the most vulnerable parts of our society. Either because they (elderly/young) are physically more vulnerable or economically are less able to address certain shocks (i.e. through insurance).

These groups can often be found in areas which are climatically more vulnerable anyway (i.e. urban flood plains or areas likely to experience extreme summer temperatures and associated air quality).

Focussing on understanding these vulnerable groups and their climate resilience needs is critical not just because these suffer the worst climate justice amongst society, but because the costs of responding to and helping these sections of society recover from extreme climate impacts tends to disproportionally impact on public sector services and costs post-event.

How could adaptation affect economic growth in GM? What impact will it have on industry?

Climate change, particularly where it disrupts travel and supply chains, causes major infrastructure damage or reduces productivity and has a potential major impact on GM’s economy. 

The resilience of GM’s economy to these impacts could be enhanced by ensuring that investment in economic growth considers adaptation. A rapid transition to a low carbon economy for GM — one which is climate resilient — has the potential to ensure GM is ‘open for business’ and could be a marketable asset to the city region. 

John Thompson, Partnership and Engagement Manager for GM, Merseyside and Cheshire at the Environment Agency:

How is the Environment Agency working towards adapting to climate change?

The Environment Agency is a lead for the National Adaptation Plan. As part of that, we work with Climate UK on climate-ready programmes.

What are the main goals of the National Adaptation Plan and how will it affect GM?

From what our science tells us, the challenges we’re facing nationally are rising temperatures and sea level rise.

Obviously [the latter] doesn’t have an impact on GM however we know that there have been some major volatile effects from the weather in the past few years, including deluges of rain.

So how we manage our business has really changed – being here for more than 20 years ago, we used to have [reliable] views on the weather, and talking about the ‘flood season’ starting. But a heavy rain incident, like the one in Manchester last month which affected the Mancunian Way, starts to show and starts to prove that you can’t predict the weather now.

So as a business we’re changing our views and trying to rationalise how we go about this.

Things like our Climate Ready support service is to try and help other organisations and businesses look at the sensitivity a changing climate makes, and taking steps and actions to manage the risks.

We’ve done an active programme of training and working with academia and other partners. GM has a very strong partnership approach and collaborative approach to identifying not just the issues but how to go about solving them.


Main image from Flickr user Stacey MacNaught.