January 2007


Background to research

The climate of Northern Ireland is already changing.  Air temperature is rising and the number of hot days is increasing; the proportion of rainfall falling in summer is decreasing, while winters are slightly wetter (EHS, 2004).  These changes are expected to accelerate over the coming century.  Average temperature may rise by 3°C or more; summer rainfall may fall by up to 50% while winters may be 25% wetter (Hulme et al., 2002).  Furthermore, relative sea level may begin to rise.

Although there are ongoing efforts to mitigate climate change, principally by reducing emissions, at least some climate change is now inevitable.  Adaptation to climate change – reducing risks and realising opportunities – is therefore required.  It is vital that the community and key stakeholders within it have a clear understanding of potential impacts and response strategies.  In particular public bodies, with their policy-making, service provision and advisory roles, need to be at the forefront in risk management and the delivery of sustainable development.

This report examines the ways in which Northern Ireland must prepare to meet both the opportunities and threats presented by the impacts of a changing climate.  It focuses specifically on the impacts on, and the need for adaptation by, the public sector in Northern Ireland.

Objectives of research

The five main objectives of this study were to:
  1. Provide an analysis (updating the 2002 SNIFFER scoping report), based on the themes of Economic Infrastructure, Built Environment, Natural Environment and Social Wellbeing, of climate change impacts upon Northern Ireland, using the UK Climate Impacts Programme 2002 (UKCIP02) scenarios and recent research in the field relevant to Northern Ireland.
  2. Produce a risk analysis of identified impacts with estimated likelihood of risk and resource implications.
  3. Produce an adaptation strategy for each impact, identifying the public sector bodies responsible for delivery.
  4. Provide an analysis of the effect on public services (building on the 2005 EHS guidance), specifically on the key outcomes related to the Government’s three priority themes of Economic Competitiveness, Equality and Community Cohesion and Better Public Services.
  5. Produce a technical report of climate impacts for use by policy experts.  In addition, a separate non-technical summary report has been produced.
Climate change

Current climate, in particular extreme weather, can present difficulties and the examples documented provide some indication of the sensitivity to climate change.  For this reason, it is recommended that information on sensitivity to current weather is collated by public sector organisations.
The UKCIP08 climate change scenarios, due in 2008, are not likely to alter the strategic findings of this report.  However, significantly more detail will be provided, including probabilistic projections, and this will be particularly useful for detailed technical assessments for key sectors – an essential next step to this report.  It is recommended that a brief assessment of the UKCIP08 scenarios is made on their publication, reviewing any changes in projections and highlighting the enhanced data available for stakeholders in Northern Ireland.  It is also recommended that outputs of Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) research are reviewed with respect to application in Northern Ireland.

There remain significant uncertainties associated with climate change scenarios and impact assessment and this has been recognised through this study as a significant barrier to planning for adaptation, particularly in funding detailed studies and investments.  A large amount of research is currently underway regarding uncertainty and approaches to quantification and it is recommended that detailed assessments review the findings.

Rapid climate change, for example leading to a decline in the North Atlantic Drift, is considered unlikely over the next 100 years.  It is recommended that a watching brief is kept on current research in this area and if necessary alternative ‘side-swipe’ scenarios are investigated to test the resilience of Northern Ireland.

The development and assessment of socio-economic scenarios for Northern Ireland is recommended for use alongside climate change scenarios.  These should build on the work being undertaken as part of the UKCIP / Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council BESEECH study.

Climate change impacts

Climate change impacts have been identified for each sector, with a link made between the climate variable and the receptor.  The risk assessment has classified each of the impacts as a threat, opportunity, lost opportunity or benefit.  This method is a valuable way to prioritise impacts and adaptive responses, and it is recommended that a risk-based approach is adopted in more detailed impact assessments.

The main impacts of climate change have been considered in terms of the principal sectoral activities in Northern Ireland and are summarised below.

The Natural Environment

Conservation, biodiversity and habitats

Threats to the conservation, biodiversity and habitats of Northern Ireland include:
 The opportunities that a changing climate could bring to the conservation, biodiversity and habitats of Northern Ireland (e.g. expansion of one species, wetter winters for some habitats) tend to be accompanied by equivalent threats (e.g. loss of another species and drier summers respectively).


Threats to fisheries in and around Northern Ireland include the following:
Opportunities for Fisheries in and around Northern Ireland from a changing climate are limited but warmer waters may provide benefits to aquaculture including higher growth rates and new species.


Threats to agriculture in Northern Ireland include:
Opportunities for agriculture in Northern Ireland include:

Threats to forestry in Northern Ireland include the following:
Opportunities for forestry in Northern Ireland include:
Water resources

Threats to water resources in Northern Ireland include the following:
Opportunities are limited but increasingly wet winters could provide an opportunity for increased water storage. Business opportunities may arise from increased demand for water efficient products.

The Built Environment

Coastal and flood risk management

Threats to coastal and flood risk management in Northern Ireland include the following:
No opportunities or benefits have been identified in relation to coastal and flood risk management; however, there may be opportunities in related areas e.g. new habitat creation projects.

Buildings, construction and planning

Threats to buildings, construction and planning in Northern Ireland include the following:
Economic Infrastructure


Business is sensitive to generic impacts such as flooding as well as weather-related effects on product demand.  Threats to business in Northern Ireland include:
However, there will also be opportunities for businesses which can adapt, for example:


With regards to insurance, climate change is likely to affect customer needs and the nature of cover, while altering the pattern of claims and risk to which insurers are exposed.  Threats to insurance in Northern Ireland include:
No opportunities or benefits have been identified for the insurance sector overall, although there will be opportunities for new products and a reduction in certain claims (e.g. cold-weather related accidents).


Transport, and in particular roads, are already vulnerable to extreme weather.  Threats to transport in Northern Ireland include:
The main opportunity for the sector will be the likely increase in demand for walking and cycling.


Tourism will be affected by and will benefit from climate changes both in Northern Ireland and internationally.  Specific risks for Northern Ireland include:
Opportunities for tourism in Northern Ireland include:

Threats to the energy sector include:
Benefits under climate change include a reduction in winter heating needs and winter fuel poverty.

Social Wellbeing


Threats to health in Northern Ireland include:
Opportunities for health in Northern Ireland include:
Sport and recreation

Threats to sport and recreation in Northern Ireland include:
Opportunities for sport and recreation in Northern Ireland include:
Cross-sector impacts

A number of potential cross-sector impacts have been identified.  These relate to:
Impacts on public services

The implications of each climate change impact on public services in Northern Ireland have been assessed and the relevant public bodies that may be responsible for developing and implementing adaptation measures identified.  Some impacts directly affect public buildings, infrastructure and land; others affect processes, services and plans managed by public bodies.  For most impacts, more than one Public Service Area and public body responsible for adaptation was identified, highlighting the need for a cross-sector, multi-agency approach to adaptation.   Planning (and therefore the Planning Service) has a role in several sectors.  The DOE needs to continue its co-ordinating role, to include leadership on raising awareness, monitoring and managing implementation.  Strong links will also be required with the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the lead office on Sustainable Development.

There are a number of climate-sensitive policy outcomes related to Government’s priorities and spending plans.  In general, climate change impacts will make it more difficult to meet the outcomes of the Government’s priority themes, but constraints can be minimised by building climate change adaptation into the action plans for the delivery of these outcomes.  This is recognised in the Sustainable Development Strategy, which itself must consider the impacts of climate change in the delivery of each target.  By considering climate change impacts now, policies can be ‘future proofed’ by planning adaptation.  In this respect sustainable development can be a useful tool for promoting wider adaptation to climate change and this study will contribute to the key targets identified for climate change adaptation in the Strategy.

Adaptation to climate change impacts

The current approach to adaptation varies between sectors and between organisations within sectors.  Some organisations are moving towards adaptation, at least in certain functions or with regards to particular strategies, but many are delaying, adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach.  This latter approach often involves building adaptive capacity, through research and networking.  A particular outcome of the ‘wait and see’ approach to climate change adaptation is that there is generally a lack of sector-specific risk assessments for Northern Ireland.  As a result, awareness, willingness to change and general sense of urgency to consider climate change adaptation within sector-specific planning is lacking.  

For some sectors, whilst research is being undertaken to assess the potential impacts of a changing climate, this does not appear to be carried through into policy and strategy development.  For example, despite the significant amount of climate change impact research in relation to biodiversity, there does not appear to be any clear co-ordination of strategic planning within and between the various bodies responsible to address climate change risks and planning for adaptation.  This also means that the links to other sectors, for example between biodiversity, fisheries, tourism and recreation, are potentially missed.

The short-term pressures (resources, funding etc) on a number of sectors, such as health for example, have meant that there is very little political will to address climate change impacts.  In other sectors, such as tourism, the business planning process tends to have a much shorter term focus and a more strategic or political response to climate change adaptation will be required.

It is recommended that climate change adaptation is given a higher priority across all sectors and within each of the public bodies identified as being responsible for adaptation.

Potential adaptation strategies have been identified for each of the impacts identified in the study.  These are presented below.

The Natural Environment

Conservation, biodiversity and habitats:
Water Resources:
The Built Environment

Coastal and flood risk management:
Buildings, construction and planning:
Economic Infrastructure

Social Wellbeing


Sport and recreation:
It is recommended that the sector-specific adaptation strategies are now taken forward and the risk-based assessment of impacts has provided an indicative prioritisation of the timetable for adaptation.  Immediate priority should be given to the most significant impacts; for major threats and opportunity adaptive actions should be undertaken, or at least planned, in the short-term.  Given the lag in the climate system, we are already committed to changes projected to about the year 2040 and therefore adaptive actions to initial impacts can be planned and executed with some certainty.  Adaptive actions may require detailed sector-specific risk assessments, option appraisal and selection, and development of associated indicators and targets to benchmark progress.

For many adaptation cases there are opportunities for no or low-regret solutions, particularly in relation to improving the ability to cope with current weather-related impacts.  There are also win-win opportunities to adapt to several impacts with one action.  It will be necessary to re-evaluate impacts where the risk has been classified as unknown, especially where this may lead to a major threat.  This will involve review of ongoing research and development of a better understanding of the sensitivity of receptors.

A number of general themes for climate change adaptation are apparent from across the sector- and impact-specific adaptation strategies.  These can be grouped under the two main elements of the UK’s Adaptation Policy Framework:

Building adaptive capacity: Delivering adaptive actions:
  • Raising awareness.
  • Increase training and knowledge.
  • Contribute to the development and use of climate change scenarios for Northern Ireland, to include comparison of EPA and UKCIP output.
  • Development of socio-economic scenarios for Northern Ireland for use alongside climate change scenarios in detailed impact assessments.
  • Review of legislation, regulations, policies and procedures with respect to protection from climate change and provision of incentives for adaptation.
  • Contingency / emergency planning.
  • Improve monitoring and records of extreme weather events.
  • Incorporate climate change into existing models.
  • Include climate impacts and adaptation in strategies and plans, with scheme specific risk assessments.
  • Consideration of cross-sector implications of responses: threats and opportunities. 
  •  Increase resilience e.g. diversification; buffer zones.
  • Accept losses where feasible e.g. coastal realignment.
  • Avoid losses e.g. by altering building materials.
  • Embrace change e.g. new species and maximising opportunities provided.
  • Exploiting opportunities provided by mitigation (e.g. woodland / forestry management).
  • Planning for risks and opportunities in new infrastructure projects (water, sewerage, flood risk, transport, construction etc).
  • Changes to management and maintenance practices to accommodate changes in climate.
  • In building design / construction: managing heat gain; energy, water and environmental efficiencies.
  • Enhanced health surveillance and heat-wave response.

Constraints to adaptation include uncertainty about future climate conditions and a lack of funding and human resources.  The future is inherently uncertain and decision-making will need to incorporate uncertainty in climate change and socio-economic scenarios, drawing on appropriate techniques and new research.  Flexibility and the implementation of no- and low-regret solutions will help avoid unnecessary adaptation.  This will be particularly the case in terms of those sectors responsible for the management and development of infrastructure with typically long asset lives and high levels of investment; but it is equally appropriate for the environment / biodiversity sectors.  A rise in the profile of climate change adaptation will need to be accompanied by appropriate resources to undertake detailed impact assessments and implement adaptation.  In the short-term this may require funding for capacity building, while in the medium to long term funding may be required to deliver adaptive actions.

Next steps: a partnership of stakeholders

This study identifies the main issues that public services in Northern Ireland will need to consider in terms of the impacts and needs for adaptation to a changing climate.  Option appraisal and selection, and development of associated indicators and targets should now be undertaken.  This is likely to require more detailed quantitative assessment of impacts at the sector and scheme level, which may be guided by the risk assessments completed in this study.  However, as the impacts and responses taken for one sector or organisation could significantly affect others, it is recommended that a Northern Ireland climate change partnership is established to facilitate and coordinate stakeholder engagement and consideration of issues within and between sectors.  This should provide the foundation for ensuring that Northern Ireland is adequately prepared for the impacts of climate change.

Keywords: climate change, impacts, risk, adaptation, public service, Northern Ireland.

Copies of this report are available from the Foundation, in electronic format on CDRom at £20.00 + VAT or hard copy at £50.00, less 20% to FWR members.

N.B. The report is available for download from the SNIFFER Website