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How many floods will it take for the Tories to take net zero seriously?

“We need more wetlands,” says chair of Natural England, as Chris Skidmore’s review of the government’s climate response is released.

By India Bourke

Floods, like droughts, are made more likely and extreme due to global climate change. Last year, record rains devastated communities from Pakistan to Australia; this one has opened with deadly storms claiming lives and livelihoods in California. In the UK, a 2°C temperature rise would increase flood frequency in Wales by 50 per cent. In recent days, heavy rain has blocked trains, submerged cars and will likely cause havoc across the country into next month. 

Yet still the British government dithers and defers the action needed to counter the threat. A report commissioned under Liz Truss and carried out by the Tory’s green “tsar”, Chris Skidmore MP, has found the government’s pursuit of net zero emissions by 2050 to be unclear and inconsistent. Skidmore’s review has made 129 recommendations to up the urgency. These cover everything from onshore wind and solar roofs (which require easier planning routes), to eco food labelling and phasing out gas boilers (a process that needs to be sped up). 

But the report doesn’t only recommend preventative action linked to stemming emissions. The need to prepare for climate change’s worsening impacts is also raised, with a call to “invest in nature restoration and protection” – to both lock up carbon and reduce the risks of increasingly extreme weather. Here too the current government’s performance is patchy at best. 

An initiative announced this week could help stem flooding’s unwanted flows. After more than ten years’ campaigning by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and others, developers will now be required by law to include sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) into their building plans. This means more mini-wetlands – such as rain gardens, ponds and swales – to redirect urban downpours away from over-stretched drains and into natural soakaways. As well as boosting biodiversity and wellbeing, the trust said in a statement, the schemes should also “prevent flooding, improve water quality and help cool cities down”.

But urban wetlands are not enough on their own; we also need landscape-scale restoration of the nation’s natural sinks. Rivers need re-wiggling, peatlands preserving and marshlands protecting in order to prevent water building up downstream and threatening urban areas on larger scales. This could be done via increased government support for land managers, with subsidies that encourage them to create the kind of public goods we all need but can’t individually buy. “We need more wetlands of all shapes and sizes,” Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, told Spotlight. “The more we can incentivise the creation of such wetland, the better it will be.

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“Its rarely one intervention that gives us all we need. So the linking of wetland to built development is fantastic, but we also need to find other ways we can make more harmonious water cycles.” The UK’s 2030 nature recovery goals are reliant on an “ecologically coherent network” that joins up efforts across the country.

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Reforms to Countryside Stewardship schemes could help in this regard, yet these have been beset by doubts and delays. And so the story of partial and half-hearted government action on tackling climate threats continues, even as the rain continues to pour and Britain’s crumbling infrastructure creaks under its weight. With the Met Office predicting further severe flooding next month, it is clearly time for the government’s drip-drip of policy to reach full flow.

[See also: “We have an open goal”: how Labour plans to unlock the climate vote]

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