UK Public Sector "largely unprepared" for climate change risks including flooding

Public sector organisations in the UK may not be adequately prepared to deal with the likely impacts of climate change. Research undertaken by the Carbon Trust reveals that only a quarter of public sector organisations have undertaken an assessment of their potential climate change risks and put plans in place to adapt to them.

This was a key finding from a survey of public sector professionals, which was conducted in advance of the Carbon Trust’s twelfth annual public sector conference taking today place in London. The research also revealed that a further 15 percent of public sector organisations have undertaken a risk assessment but not made any plans to mitigate identified risks yet.

Tim Pryce, Head of Public Sector at the Carbon Trust said:

“This research suggests that public sector organisations are making some progress on mitigating climate change – although not at the rate that scientists tell us is necessary to avoid the worst impacts. However, they remain largely unprepared for taking action to reduce the risks of impacts such as flooding on public services, transport and healthcare.

“This fits with our own experience working with the public sector, who are only now starting to get to grips with what will be need to be done to create stronger and more resilient communities in the UK. Practically this means undertaking a full risk assessment, then intelligently using their powers as planners and service providers to minimise future disruption and costs, while showing leadership in their local areas.”


The expected results of climate change in the UK are going to be rising temperatures, more extreme weather events, and particularly a shift towards generally wetter winters with heavier incidents of rainfall. [1] The temperatures in central England have already risen by about one degree Celsius since the early twentieth century [2], and are likely to rise by a further three to five degrees by the end of this century in the absence of mitigation measures. [3]


Building resilience to the impacts of climate change will be important over the coming decades. If left unmanaged these could have a number of negative consequences, causing disruption or damage in areas such as the built environment, infrastructure, the natural environment, public healthy and the economy.


Professor Dame Julia Slingo is the Chief Scientist at the Met Office and one of the keynote speakers at the Carbon Trust Public Sector Conference. She said:

“It is likely that in the UK we’ll see a broader range of high-impact weather. We need to be prepared and make wise decisions regarding investment in adaptation. For this we need to make use of the best available science.”


Currently there is a power under the Climate Change Act 2008 where the government can require organisations – including public bodies – to report on their adaptation to the impacts of climate change. However currently a voluntary approach is taken to the reporting of threats, opportunities and the measures being taken in response to these. Only a limited number of public sector organisations are specifically invited to report, alongside a number of companies involved in managing critical national infrastructure. [4]


The important role of local authorities


Local authorities play a particularly important role in climate change adaptation. They have powers to directly affect land use planning, flood risk management, local infrastructure and biodiversity protection, as well as an influence over public health and emergency planning. In fact until it was abolished in 2010, National Indicator 188 required all local authorities to assess and report on their climate risks.


However, the most recent assessment from the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change recognises that the progress made by this group has gone backwards. Around 90 percent of local authority staff interviewed in 2013 stated that adaptation to climate change had been deprioritised. The reason given for this is competing economic and spending pressures, as well as the fact that there is currently no statutory requirement to assess risks or prepare strategies to respond. [5]


While the Adaptation Sub-Committee found that 42 percent of local authorities had prepared a climate change adaptation strategy and a further 28 percent claimed to be in the process of producing one, the Carbon Trust’s survey suggests that across the wider public sector that rates are far lower.




  • Positive progress is being made on addressing climate change mitigation, with over half of respondents (56%) reporting an improvement in performance. Four in ten (44%) also claim increased levels of commitment to action.


  • Finance remains one of the greatest current obstacles to action, with lack of budget (49%), lack of financing options (26%) and internal budget holders not signing off on invest-to-save projects (20%) selected as some of most significant barriers.


  • To help public sector organisations to take more effective action on climate change over the longer term there are high levels of demand for more support from central government (72%). More budget or available finance (64%) and stronger internal resources or expertise (35%) were also highlighted as important ways to improve progress.


The Carbon Trust’s survey also investigated the public sector’s progress in taking action on sustainability and climate change within their own operational boundaries. The picture here was far more positive, with over half of the respondents reporting an improvement in performance. Similarly, more than four in ten suggested that levels of commitment had increased.


However, there is some question over whether better performance will be good enough to meet the UK’s national ambitions on climate change. Tim Pryce added:

“It is true that progress is being made in the public sector, but meeting the UK’s science based targets on climate change is going to require a huge effort. Unfortunately, there are still far too many cost effective energy efficiency projects that are not being implemented. What is needed is a greater level of investment into high quality projects. This can deliver a number of benefits, not least better quality and more efficient public services. Public bodies also need to consider the impacts of climate change on their buildings, workforce and services far more seriously.”




Notes to Editor



[1] Defra (2012). UK Climate Change Risk Assessment: Government Report. HM Government.



[4] Defra (2013). Adapting to Climate Change: Ensuring Progress in Key Sectors 2013 Strategy for exercising the Adaptation Reporting Power and list of priority reporting authorities. HM Government.

[5] Committee on Climate Change (2015). Progress in Preparing for Climate Change: 2015 Report to Parliament.


About the Research:

The Carbon Trust conducted an online survey of public sector professionals registered to attend the Carbon Trust Public Sector Conference in January and February 2016. Statistics are based on 189 responses, with respondents primarily coming from central government, local government, non-departmental public bodies, the NHS, public services and universities.


About the Carbon Trust:

The Carbon Trust is an independent company with a mission to accelerate the move to a sustainable, low-carbon economy. The Carbon Trust:

  • advises businesses, governments and the public sector on opportunities in a sustainable, low-carbon world;
  • measures and certifies the environmental footprint of organisations, products and services;
  • helps develop and deploy low-carbon technologies and solutions, from energy efficiency to renewable power.

About the Carbon Trust Public Sector Conference:

The Carbon Trust Public Sector Conference 2016 in association with Current, by GE is the 12th annual event hosted by the Carbon Trust exclusively for public sector delegates, supporting their ambitions in improving sustainability and carbon emissions reduction. Keynote speakers this year are:

  • Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change
  • Joan MacNaughton CB HonFEI, Executive Chair of the World Energy Trilemma, World Energy Council
  • Professor Dame Julia Slingo OBE FRS, Chief Scientist, Met Office