Impacts of climate change now and in the future


How will climate change affect Scotland?

The potential damage from climate change comes in many forms.  The impacts of not taking action now range from higher energy bills, to flooding in low-lying parts of Scotland, to increased war, conflict and migration as resources become scarcer and the global population increases. Scotland’s population is highly concentrated in urban areas, areas which are particularly at risk from increased flooding and storms. Work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that coastal communities are on the front line from increased flooding and are often the most poorly equipped to respond.

Scotland’s population is also ageing, and an ageing population will be particularly vulnerable to the health effects of extreme weather.  Key Scottish economic sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry and timber, and tourism may also be adversely affected by climate change’s environmental impacts. A significant amount of the UK’s natural resources, many of which are sensitive to climate change, are located in Scotland, such as 47% of the UK’s total forest land. Scotland’s exports and the global imports on which it relies may also be hit by the impact which climate change has upon other countries [1].

How are people in other parts of the world affected?

Climate change is already having devastating effects upon people in the developing world, from Bangladesh, across India and in east Africa.  Extreme weather, such as floods, droughts and   irregular rainfall is destroying homes, schools and crops, and killing livestock, all the things on which people rely day to day.

Melting glaciers in countries like Bolivia and Tajikistan diminish water supplies. As a result of all this, many of the world’s poorest people face ever greater challenges to provide for themselves and their families.  Hundreds of thousands of people are already dying as a result of climate change [2] and 100 to 200 million more people could be at risk of hunger due to climate change by 2050 [3].

Which parts of the world might be worst affected in the future?

The impact of climate change will be felt globally, particularly in coastal areas. Cities like New York and Shanghai could be swamped by rising sea levels. But most severely affected will be poorer countries in the developing world. Many are already vulnerable to flooding and drought and much of their economic activity is in climate change-sensitive sectors like farming.

Climate change will combine with high population growth in such countries to put food and clean water supplies under even more pressure. Africa and south Asia are particularly vulnerable, but water availability could also diminish severely across west Asia, the Middle East, Central America and the Mediterranean and Amazon basins [4]. Lengthy droughts could cause huge migrations and regional security problems.

What balance do we need to strike between mitigation and adaptation?

We need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions (known as ‘mitigation’) which cause climate change; it would be excessively costly and increasingly futile to try adapting to increasing global temperatures. For instance the Scottish Climate Change Act is designed, in line with the scientific advice, to reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions by at least 42% below 1990 levels by the year 2020, and by at least 80% by 2050 [5]. Mitigation can also bring health and economic benefits, by reducing local air pollution and slowing energy use.

However, greenhouse gases that have already been emitted will remain in the atmosphere for many years, so even factoring in future emissions reductions, there will still be some climate change to which we must adapt.  Helping countries and communities most vulnerable to climate change, constructing anti-flood defences, realigning coastlines, making farming less wasteful, protecting biodiversity, are some of the ways in which this needs to be done.

Shouldn’t we wait until the global financial crisis is resolved?

No, because this can’t be an ‘either-or’ choice.  See question 4 and 5 for the urgency with which climate change needs to be tackled.

In addition, measures such as improving energy efficiency of buildings and fitting solar panels in millions of British homes could be a major generator of new jobs, as well as a means of combating climate change. For instance, the Scottish Government estimates that there will be 130,000 jobs in the low-carbon sector in Scotland by 2020 [6].

What is the economic cost of climate change?

Immediate costs come from things like higher energy bills, higher mortality rates and health costs through air pollution, and flooding in low-lying parts of Scotland [7]. Predicting longer-term costs is difficult, but a major attempt came in 2006 from the UK government-sponsored Stern Review. This concluded that ignoring climate change could reduce global GDP by 20% by the year 2100 – due to the economic disruption caused by impacts like drought, flooding, forest fires, refugee movements, and armed conflict over control of dwindling resources.

To avoid this, Sir Nicholas Stern, the review’s main author, believes 2% of global GDP needs spending annually [8]. For Scotland, the UKCCC maintains that ‘Scottish emissions reduction targets can be met at manageable economic cost (e.g. of the order less than 1% of GDP)’ to meet the 42% emissions reduction target by 2020 [9]. By this analysis, avoiding catastrophic climate change will be cheaper than ignoring it.




[1] UK Committee on Climate Change, November 2011, How well is Scotland preparing for climate change? First report to the Scottish Government by the CCC Adaptation Sub-Committee, pp. 15

[2] WHO, Health Adaptation to Climate Change webpage, accessed 20/03/13:

[3] Met Office, Impacts on food security webpage accessed 16/03/13,
[4] Met Office, Impacts on the developing world webpage accessed 16/03/13,; and European Environment Agency, What impacts are expected in the future? webpage,

[5] UK Committee on Climate Change, January 2012, First Scottish Progress Report, p6,; WWF Living Planet Report 2012, p. 96,

[6] Scottish Government, March 2011, Low Carbon Scotland, The Report on Proposals and Policies 2010-2022,

[7] Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, September 2011,Evidence to Finance Committee on preventative spending,, p. 2.

[8] HM Treasury, The Stern Review: Economics of Climate Change,

[9] UK Committee on Climate Change, February 2010, Scotland’s path to a low carbon economy,


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