The biggest robot in the world doesn’t have two legs and arms but is in fact a massive storm barrier in the Netherlands. Constructed as a response to the 1953 North Sea floods, it acts as a protector of homes, businesses and people, without anybody being aware.
This is a form of adaptation. As Ludovic Voet, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), explains: “Climate change is already affecting us… we need to have adaptation strategies and this means we need to anticipate the effects of climate change and take action to prevent and minimise the damage they can cause.”
At COP26, it was heard how developing countries are already deep into the extreme weather impacts from climate change. More than 91 per cent of deaths from severe weather and the changing climate occur in developing countries. The $100 billion that rich countries have finally agreed to pay annually to these vulnerable nations to deal with the climate crisis reflects that reality.
But in the UK, we will also feel and see the changes – more days of heavy rainfall, droughts, warmer winters and hotter summers – and businesses need to be prepared. “All businesses will have to mitigate by reducing their emissions, but our climate is changing,” says Dr Keith Whitehead, senior environmental consultant at the British Safety Council. “Even now at 1.5C of warming (above pre-industrial levels) the impact on people, business and entire countries over the next 20, 30, or 40 years will be immense. Even if this COP turns out to be successful, we are still in for a rough ride.”
So what does adaptation involve?
Adaptation for employers is like a big risk assessment. The (voluntary) 2019 international standard on adaptation to climate change, ISO 14090, asks organisations to assess the ‘cross cutting and systematic’ impacts of extreme weather to their business and people and take appropriate steps.
Key areas in this include employee health, safety and productivity, as well as material damage, interruptions to business and the supply chain and a host of other considerations.
We spoke to people involved in climate change adaptation at COP26 to find out what the thinking is on these some of these topics and what employers should be doing.
Feeling hot, hot, hot
According to the Met Office, the number of extremely hot days could increase four-fold from 10 to 37 days every year in the UK with 40C heatwaves not unknown by 2050. That’s a worse-case scenario. But, as COP President Alok Sharma said repeatedly at the conference, even half a degree rise from 1.5C to 2C will see one billion people face heat-stress risks, a rise from 68 million today.
Heat stress can be extremely serious, as Ludovic Voet tells us: “Construction and agriculture workers are particularly affected by rise of temperatures. Their health and safety is clearly in danger of the risks of heatstroke, fatigue and lack of concentration but also diseases like skin cancer.”
ETUC’s new adaptation to climate change guide also notes the risks of ‘tripping, falling from height, mechanical handling and road risks’ that come with working in hot weather conditions because heat affects concentration. Preventative measures the guide advises include changing working hours, investment in proper equipment and access to water.
But indoors too, there is an issue for our workers in the UK. Speaking to the TUC’s Mika Minio-Paluello, policy officer for Industry and Climate, he says: “The UK’s building stock isn’t really suited to heat, it isn’t ventilated well so that can mean your people are working in sweltering, unhealthy and hot conditions. That is likely to get worse and is already getting worse with climate change.”
The TUC and other unions have been pressing the government for a new legal maximum temperature for indoor working conditions. But employers shouldn’t wait for that law or guidance to come out, suggests Colin, a 45-year-old civil servant at COP who has an extreme sensitivity to heat. “My issue with hot weather is not so much about sunburn – it is temperature. Anything above 30 I start to feel quite ill, a bit disconnected, a bit unsteady.”
For Colin, exposure to heat – even for 10 minutes walking to the office, or sitting on a hot train – can end up being a two-day long illness. He says: “Heat has to be one of the factors that employers take into account in how they are going to protect their workers. If people are commuting in cities in a heatwave as a responsible employer you should be supporting people to work from home.”
A flood-prone island
Flooding is another clear risk to UK businesses presented by climate change. Almost one in three commercial properties are at risk from some type of flooding, according to Aviva which reported its highest monthly number of commercial flood claims ever in July 2021.
Emmie Morgan, an insurance executive we spoke to, says that the problem is that a lot of businesses’ outbuildings are found on low lying fields: “It’s where you might put a warehouse or school pavilion. But they aren’t good for flooding.” She adds that the government still greenlights building on flood prone areas, giving the mistaken impression to businesses they are safe. Climate change “comes top in the list of things clients are most worried about”.
As we all saw in the 2015 floods in Cumbria, flooding can have a direct impact on both assets, buildings and the supply chain. Carlisle’s McVitie’s factory ovens were submerged in water and the surrounding roads completely enveloped. After the event all the factories were adapted to flood risk.
Keith is worried that ‘most businesses have not done a climate change risk assessment’: “This is why we now include it in the British Safety Council environmental audit to remind employers they need to do it.” It might identify the need to adapt drainage systems, change a building’s roof to decrease water run-off or fit more water-tight windows. “You can also find good case studies of this kind of work on the UK Climate Impacts Programme website,” he says.
Involving workers in change
So, at COP26, how well is it going in the UK for recognising the risks of climate change and adapting to them? When we spoke to Mika, the negotiations were still in play to sign off and agree the final text which sets the global targets and ‘homework’ for governments to do before they meet again at the next COP in 2022.
What unions wanted from the agreement was for it recognise the need for decent work and quality jobs in the move to a greener economy, called a ‘just transition’. “Jobs will change in the process to decarbonise – people will have a different role, so employers should be talking to their workers about what that transition can and should look like. Workers have a lot of knowledge about that – and can often come up with solutions that might work better, not just for their own tasks but for hitting zero carbon,” says Mika.
“There’s responsibility to the climate and to the workforce, for employers to actually talk to their workers. Employers need to step up on it but government also needs to provide a framework where it’s understood that that’s the way it should work.” The agreement included the wording around quality jobs, but Mika says there needed to be more detail to make it ‘concrete.’
Government policies should be better at getting workers ready for the future, agrees Ludovic Voet. Fire-fighters need to be trained in flood response, for example, or oil platform workers learn skills in working on wind farms. “Adaptation strategies in the world of work is not really the priority put at the centre of climate policies,” he says.
“When you look at adaptation strategies they are more focused on cities – what can be done to adapt where we live to what will happen. But to look at what may happen in the workplace, reinforcing the role of workers in anticipating how they may be affected, to make them able to bargain for protective measures, is also something for us to reinforce.”
What we do know is that adaptation to what’s coming down the line is crucial. Planning for it will make us safer, ensure better decisions for the future and help us move quicker towards a greener world. “We need both strategies – emissions reduction and adaptation,” says Keith. “We can’t do one without the other. Even if we could turn it (emissions) off tomorrow, we’d still have climate change.”
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