As Britain prepares for its first climate refugees, experts reveal the nation is facing a ticking timebomb as its coastal defences are reaching the end of their natural life.
With the fastest eroding coastline in Europe, the east of England is losing two metres of land to the sea every year.
Hundreds of people have been forced to leave their homes in rollback schemes and this year it was revealed Fairbourne, in north Wales, is set to become the first community in the UK to be decommissioned as a result of climate change.
Coastal erosion expert Professor Jim Hall said with sea defences reaching the end of their lives it will not be affordable for the UK to adequately protect its coastlines.
“The situation on the coast is a timebomb,” he said.
“As the climate changes the current approach to protecting the English coastline is not fit for purpose.
“It’s time people woke up to the very real challenges ahead. As sea levels rise and flooding and erosion get worse, we have assessed that current plans for around 150 kilometres, or 90 miles, of the coastline are not cost-beneficial to implement.”
Rising sea levels are expected to be a focal point at this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz, following a stark warning by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at last year’s summit that the world is facing a “global emergency” on oceans.
“Make no mistake, we are in a battle. And we are losing on every front,” he said.
Presently one person every second is being displaced due to floods, storms, earthquakes and droughts across the world.
Latest figures from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reveal 26.4m people a year are being forcibly displaced.
In the UK, sea levels have risen 15.4cm since 1900 and are predicted to rise up to 1.12m by 2100.
More UK villages are expected to be forcibly abandoned in the future, with Fairbourne likely to be the first, within the next 26 years.
Plans are now being prepared to relocate Fairbourne’s 850 residents and dismantle the entire village, turning it back into tidal salt marsh. Flooding and storm surges are predicted to make Fairbourne uninhabitable as the council revealed it cannot afford to defend it.
Despite dozens of homes being lost along the east coast, Fairbourne will be the first to be decommissioned as its location at the foot of the Snowdonia National Park, between the mountains and the sea, makes it impossible to save or relocate.
The move has sparked anger among its residents.
Stuart Eves, the vice-chairman of the local community council, runs a caravan park in Fairbourne. He says the council will be “strongly” objecting to the plan.
“There are no hard facts. Nobody can really say if the sea level is going to increase or decrease,” he has said.
Another resident Bev Wilkin said the situation in the village should act as “a wake up call” for the rest of the country.
Almost 300 miles away in Happisburgh, north Norfolk, 35 homes have been lost to coastal erosion.
Friends of the Earth named it as one of the top five most at risk climate change places in the UK.
Campaigner Malcolm Kerby, who founded the Coastal Concern Action Group to protect Happisburgh from being engulfed by the sea, has accused the UK government of “abandonment”.
“All we have had thus far is the Government machine coming along, doing a shoreline management plan and saying “sorry guys, we are no longer going to protect you although we have done so for 50 years. Bye”. That is not adaptation, that is abandonment.
“We’re seeing an alarming failure from the government to properly fight climate change.”
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) last year revealed more than 500,000 homes are at risk along the English coastline and almost 9,000 will be lost through coastal erosion.
In its latest report the CCC has warned that the British public are not clearly informed about the coastal erosion risk to which they are exposed or how this risk will change in future.
It says ambitious actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change could reduce the risk for up to 500,000 people by 2100.
However, it believes the UK government needs to change its approach to coastal erosion and urgent long-term funding and investment is needed to protect coastal cities and infrastructure.
“The Government and local authorities need to talk honestly with those affected about the difficult choices they face, Prof Hall, the CCC Adaptation Committee’s expert on flooding and coastal erosion, said.
“Climate change is not going away, action is needed now to improve the way England’s coasts are managed today and in the future, to reduce the polluting emissions which cause climate change, and to prepare seaside communities for the realities of a warming world.”
Professor Tom Spencer, Director of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit, has echoed his warnings.
“Many of the coastal defences that were strengthened following the 1953 storm surge are now reaching the end of their natural design life, and it’s expensive to repair or reconstruct these sorts of structures,” he said.
“If you start to think about the predicted sea level rise and severe storms due to climate change, you might need to replace existing defences with something even higher, which is not as simple as adding a bit on top of an existing structure.”
The 1953 great storm was Britain’s biggest peace time disaster, 326 people were killed, 30,000 people had to be evacuated and another 220 were lost at sea.
It led to major investment in sea defences but now those structures built in the 1950s are coming to the end of their shelf life.
Around 40 per cent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coast – leaving them vulnerable to storms, sea level rise and coastal erosion.
According to the latest research, by 2100, 2 billion people – about one-fifth of the world’s population – could become climate change refugees due to rising ocean levels.
The author of the journal Land Use Policy, Professor Charles Geisler has said: “We’re going to have more people on less land and sooner that we think.
“The pressure is on us to contain greenhouse gas emissions at present levels. It’s the best ‘future proofing’ against climate change, sea level rise and the catastrophic consequences likely to play out on coasts, as well as inland in the future.”
As French President Emmanuel Macron prepares to host the 45th G7 summit, attended by the heads of state and governments of Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, experts are calling on world leaders to put the issue of oceans at the top of their agendas.
Director of the G7 Research Group Helene Emorine is urging the nations to keep up last year’s momentum on climate change, when the summit produced, for the first time, two stand-alone documents on oceans.
“The threats facing oceans do not respect national state boundaries. Effective collaboration at the international level is a necessity,” she said.
“Mr Macron has made protecting oceans a priority for the G7 Biarritz summit, building on the momentum created by the 2018 summit where all G7 members recognised the direct impact of global temperature rise on oceans and produced the Charlevoix Blueprint and the Ocean Plastics Charter (without the United States and Japan).
“However, Biarritz must not rely too heavily on the performance of the 2018 summit, but use it as momentum to drive further ambitious, collective action in a collaborative manner, involving all departments of G7 members involved in the closely connected issues of oceans, climate change and energy.”
UN chief Mr Guterres is expected to reiterate his calls to take global threats to the world’s oceans seriously.
He will then host the focused UN 2019 Climate Summit next month.