Flood risks ‘dependent on carbon emissions’

Annual damage caused by flooding in the UK could increase by more than a fifth over the next century due to climate change unless all international pledges to reduce carbon emissions are met, according to new research led by the University of Bristol and Fathom.

The analysis, published this week, highlights the places in the UK where risks will increase most rapidly, even under the best-case scenario where global warming is limited to 1.8C. These include South East England, South Wales, North West England and Central Scotland, as well as densely populated cities including London, Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where damage increases of more than 25% are possible.

The findings show that the forecasted annual increase in national direct flood losses, defined as physical damage to property and businesses due to climate change in the UK, can be contained only if all countries fulfil the ambitious pledges they signed up to at COP26; and also that countries that made further net-zero commitments actually achieve these on time and in full.

Lead author Paul Bates, professor of hydrology at the University of Bristol and chairman of Fathom, said: “For the first time this flood model gives us a more accurate and detailed picture of the impact of climate change on the risk of flooding in the future across the UK. The results are a timely warning to the country’s political leaders and business sector that global commitments to significantly reduce carbon emissions must be taken very seriously, and ultimately take effect, in order to mitigate increased losses due to flooding.”

The modelled estimates of historical flood risk, which are based on actual river flow, rainfall and tide-surge observations as well as climate model projections, match well with data on flood losses from the Association of British Insurers, and shed new light on the financial toll of flooding.

Previous studies by other research groups have already shown that historical UK economic losses due to flooding were three times less than the government’s estimates, but this is the first time the observed losses have been replicated and corroborated by a computer model.

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