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What risks and opportunities does climate change present for coastal towns and cities?

What risks and opportunities does climate change present for coastal towns and cities?

Head of ESG, Chris Kerr explains:

We have to remember that the UK’s coastal towns, cities and environments are at the frontline of the climate crisis. On one hand, they are the area’s most at risk from the current and forecasted adverse impacts of climate change, such as coastal erosion and rising sea levels. But they are also at the forefront of potential solutions and opportunities, such as the development of clean energy and solutions which harness the natural assets of the sea to boost resilience and combat climate change.

We can expect to see a greater push towards building greater resilience in coastal buildings and infrastructure in 2024, alongside a greater drive nationally to utilise the coast’s ability to provide resources for climate change mitigation and adaption, presenting opportunities for both the public and private sectors.

First let’s consider the risks and mitigation strategies. Parts of England’s coastline are among the fastest-eroding in Europe, with the Environment Agency projecting that 1.9 million homes are at risk of coastal flooding. The forecasted impacts of climate change suggest that this number of at-risk homes is only set to increase. For example, ‘once-in-a-century’ sea-level events are predicted to become annual events by 2050 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Environment Agency’s National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England remains the key policy document for local authorities and those involved in managing coastal risks, but all impacted parties are advised to be proactive in developing their own risk management strategies.

On a macro-scale, the Government and local authorities will need to assess the ability of the four key infrastructure systems – power, transport, telecommunications, water and sanitation – needed to function and meet users’ needs during and after natural hazards, e.g. increased flooding events.

On the frontline, traditional engineering methods such as seawalls and rock groynes will continue to form a key part of our flood and coastal defences, but coastal restoration projects and other innovative ideas will be also pushed out in the next 12 months.

Property investors, developers and occupiers are also advised to review their existing estate, consider any areas for concern and whether they need to invest in mitigation and adaptation activities.

There is no doubt that the cost of adapting buildings and infrastructure now is high but the price of not doing so is expected to be even greater. In the IPCC’s Working Group II report on Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Dr Swenja Surminski estimated that ‘every dollar invested today will be saving an estimated five dollars of loss and damage in the future’.

Tackling these risks, as well as trying to position the UK as a world-leader in climate science, presents opportunities too.

Coastal areas are best placed to leverage natural resources as solutions to the climate crisis, including clean and renewable energy and other nature-based solutions such as blue-carbon capture.

This presents significant opportunities, not only for those investing and developing the required infrastructure, but also for local authorities and other groups responsible for regenerating Britain’s seaside towns and cities, a task which has traditionally been very difficult to achieve.

Whilst the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities has provided a list of factors that can make a coastal regeneration project successful – including economic diversification, greater investment into physical and social infrastructure, long-term sustainable investment and planning and increased public, social and private sector partnerships – the reality is that these things can be challenging to facilitate. This is due to a lack of a specific coastal industrial strategy, inward investment, uncertain economic futures, over-reliance on one or two sectors (mainly tourism) and poor digital/transport connectivity.

However, the climate crisis and sustainability, coupled with issues of energy security due to geopolitical instability, have conspired to put clean and renewable energy and nature-based solutions up the priority list nationally, presenting local authorities with an opportunity to unlock some of the key factors needed for successful regeneration (as listed above).

For example, there is likely to be substantial funding available for offshore wind-farm projects in the North Sea following an agreement made at SPE Offshore Europe in late 2023 between nine countries, including the UK, to develop 120GW of offshore wind in the area by 2030 and 300GW by 2050. Further sea-centric climate solutions include transport, food systems and carbon dioxide removal and storage (blue carbon).

Such projects could attract more investment into coastal areas, both in terms of the projects themselves but also into physical and social infrastructure, producing greater economic diversification. Renewable energy projects, for example, provide job opportunities in project development, manufacturing, construction, operations and maintenance, training and research.

It is time for greater partnership and collaboration from all impacted parties including Government, local authorities, industry experts, investors, developers, occupiers, the non-profit sector, land managers, infrastructure providers and local communities and residents. With a comprehensive strategy, we could simultaneously regenerate our coastal areas, tackle climate change and create new economic opportunity.

Recent polling data from the Fabien Society suggests, for the first time, Labour has a significant lead in coastal towns and cities (collectively known as the sea wall). These communities are always vital for political parties in the race to win elections and until now Labour have struggled to win them over. If Labour get elected, as it looks like they will, they will have a significant opportunity to strengthen relationships with the sea wall if they invest heavily in regenerating key coastal areas and if they produce and execute a strong industrial strategy for these regions and with concerns and finance for climate change being stronger than ever, they have a great opportunity to do so.


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