Anyone for Spanish lessons? Adapting to climate change

I joined an interesting group meeting at CIRIA last week – a workshop on climate change adaptation in the built environment. This was not a discussion about how to halt or even reverse climate change through using less energy and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (that’s mitigation).

No, this is how to deal with the effects of climate change that are already “locked in”. As Gerry Metcalfe from the UK Climate Impacts Programme explained, up until about 2050, temperature rise is influenced by emissions that have already taken place, it is pre-determined and inevitable.

Beyond 2050 temperature rise will be determined by current and future emissions. The predictions range from 1.5 to 6.0 degrees Centigrade.

Climate and weather are often confused, particularly by critics of global warming science. Paradoxically, most adaptation to climate change will be required to deal with extreme weather events, such as flooding. Converting predictions about the future climate into the likely impact on weather is problematic.

However, the direction of travel is clear. We will experience hotter, drier summers; milder, wetter winters and rising sea levels. As well as these changes in annual and seasonal averages, we are likely to see changes in the extremes, with more very hot days and more intense downpours.

Mitigation may grab the headlines but many people are working away on adaptation measures, particularly under the auspices of the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change ( Last autumn the ASC produced the first national assessment of how well prepared the UK is to cope with the impacts of climate change through adopting measures to adapt to climate change.

Earlier last year, the Technology Strategy Board published a report by architect Bill Gething titled Design for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment. This presents the key design challenges for adapting to the future climate, and explores how to interpret the scientific climate data for building design projects.

Adaptation issues include thermal comfort, flood risk management and the treatment of water, as well as structural design. Unlike the threat from the sea or rivers, the risk of surface water flooding is less likely to be on the radar of building owners and operators.

A rise in average temperatures could make some buildings very uncomfortable to work in, although relatively simple interventions such as improving cross-ventilation and pre-cooling will help. As with mitigation, facilities management will have an important role in adaptation.

The group concluded that several things would have to change for adaptation to become embedded. Built environment professionals and property owners will need risk assessment rather than just a bald restating of facts, however alarming. The Building Regulations should be reviewed to include adaptation. The ancillary benefits of adaptation measures should be highlighted. Construction training needs to be rebalanced away from new build to refurbishment and maintenance. Technical training for “non-technical managers” will be important. Knowledgeable experts are, of course, vital but more of us will need to know how buildings, systems and people interact.

Of course, we don’t have to wait for extreme weather events to show us what adaptation to climate change might mean. The countries of southern Europe have climates (and cultures) which our own may come to resemble. We can learn much from them on how buildings can be constructed, occupied and managed.


Apparently one major property owner has already been thinking about climate change and their first response is a legal one – amending references in leases to internal temperatures from absolute maximums, to “relative to external temperature” measures.