Cost of new flood defences could exceed £1.2bn

Better defences against river and estuary flooding could cost at least £1.2bn over the next 50 years in England and Wales, climate change experts warned yesterday.

Michael Meacher, Environment minister, told a London news conference that the cost of planet change is "very important" and while it may not reach the same budget levels as health or education spending, "gradually the cost is going to mount. Whether it reaches those sorts of levels I cannot possibly say at this stage. But we are talking about several billion pounds as the century unfolds. We are talking sizeable expenditure in which we have no choice because climate change is happening and we have to defend ourselves."

The minister refused to speculate on who would bear the costs, but said a decision would have to be made on that issue and on the relationship between industry, households and the Government in relation to the tax component.

"We are a long way from that. What we need to do is sensitise public opinion, business opinion and government opinion to ensure we make the maximum effort in this country to reduce emissions, to minimise the effects and adapt to those that are irreversible. That's the message." A report commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions underlines the cost of doing nothing to counter the effects of global warming compared to putting in place preventive measures.

Priority areas - water resources, flood protection, building and infrastructure, habitats and species and planning, all most likely to be affected over the next 30 to 50 years - were identified for the first time. Mr Meacher said work on adapting to climate change was at an early stage throughout the world but that Britain was as far ahead as anywhere.

The Government has already taken action by requiring water companies to submit 25-year water resource plans that take climate change into account and incorporate estimates of sea level rise into guidance on sea defences. Work has begun on a "best practice" guide for those involved in land planning use and environmental resource management has been commissioned to assess priority areas for adapting to global warming.

On water, ways must be found to reduce demand, with more efficient domestic appliances, more meters, recycling and changes in behaviour. To deal with flooding there must be better flood defences and, on building and infrastructure, new ways of designing. The electricity supply network should be able to withstand climate changes.

In the regions, the vulnerable areas include the estuaries of the Mersey, Ribble and Arun. The low-lying Gwent levels, Somerset levels, Morecambe Bay, North Kent coastline and the ports of Heysham and Dover are also vulnerable. Transport links around Dawlish and the West Cumbrian coast may be affected. Landscapes and wildlife could change forever in the Hampshire Downs, South Downs, New Forest, Welsh Uplands, the Lake District and Cairngorms. Flowers such as the Snowdon lily, birds including the dipper and snow bunting and Arctic species could disappear. But somebirds such as the kingfisher and nightingale could benefit.