In February 2008 The Strategy Unit in the UK Cabinet Office published a report setting out the challenges that Britain faces, it is called “Realising Britain’s Potential:Future Strategic Challenges for Britain”.
What is interesting about this report, and why it has relevance outside of Britain, is that the primary challenges are seen as climate change, the effects of climate change in the form of flooding and heat-waves, and the shift to a low-carbon economy. It states that, “climate change, driven by human activity, is the greatest long-term threat facing the world today.”
The challenges the report identifies are, in the main, not unique to Britain and are an interesting view of how a major Western government views our possible future.
Britain is also one of the few European countries that faces significant population growth, in part because of its attractiveness to immigrants. The report also sees globalization as a challenge as it may “create new risks of economic instability and pose new challenges in counter-terrorism and conflict prevention/resolution.” Note that the report does not see terrorism as a primary threat. The authors also state that, “there does not seem to be a widespread convergence of global values and norms.” In other words we are not heading for a universally democratic and open world.
The report states that the UK population is expected to increase to 67 million by 2020 and the numbers of people over 85 will increase by 50% in that period. The authors also assume that public services will become more personalized and professional, with “increasing responsiveness and local accountability at the local level to ensure services are community-specific and transparent.”
On climate change, the report says that attitudes and behaviours will have to change, both from business and from the public, “people will have to take action in their daily lives to prevent emissions.”
The report also calls for a modernization of British democracy to make democratic institutions more responsive, accountable and relevant to all citizens and to “address the current social skew in political participation.”
The authors state note, “the pervasive effects of globalization and the increasing interconnectedness of economies and societies with new risks as well as huge opportunities flowing from these changes.” They also refer to, “the profound transformational changes likely to follow from moving to a low carbon, low waste economy.”
On climate change the report states that, “an increased risk of flooding and severe heat waves in the UK is now inevitable in the next 20-30 years,” and government planning needs to take these risks into account. It says that, “developing carbon markets and supporting the development of low carbon technology will be essential to meeting the climate challenge in the future.” The report states that, “without sustained and collective action, climate change will have significant repercussions for all countries,” and that “to have a good chance of keeping global temperature increases below 2-3 degrees C, global [CO2] emissions must peak in the next 10-15 years.”
The other key points in the report relating to climate change are:
- in the longer term, more profound technological change, with more investment in energy technology will be required
- the attitudes and behaviour of individuals are two of the key barriers to reducing carbon emissions, difficult trade-offs will be necessary.
- it will be crucial to understand and reduce climate change impacts across product and service lifecycles – in future more attention will need to be given to the reduction of carbon emissions across the global supply chain.
- as well as providing challenges, the transition to a low carbon economy will bring significant opportunities for the UK, the benefits can outweigh the costs of the restructuring of the economy.
- Britain will need to adapt to the serious effects of climate change that that now inevitable – hotter summers, flooding, possible soil erosion and greater water scarcity (particularly in SE England).
There are a number of points which this report does not address, the most important of which is the threat of sea-level rise, neither does it acknowledge that abrupt climate change, for example a change in the direction of the Gulf Stream, is a possibility. It may also seem generally optimistic about the possibilities of united global action, but this is a government report and therefore constrained. On the question of sea-level rise governments should be banning the construction of all new building less than 5 metres above sea level and should be planning to move critical infrastructure at least 10 metres above sea-level, this will include main highways, railways, computer centres, communications systems, airports and city centres. Areas that cannot be protected should be zoned for long-term abandonment. Much of East Anglia, including the Essex coast, North Kent, the Somerset levels, will be affected. Parts of central London may have to be relocated and key Ministries should be moved away from their present locations near the River Thames.
However it is useful as giving a conservative and “official” view of the likely changes ahead, and will serve to establish a baseline. Governments which have not undertaken such studies would be well advised to look at this report and to undertake similar planning themselves. Responding to emergencies in 10 or 15 years time will be too little, too late.