A practical approach to addressing barriers to national climate adaptation policy in the UK

Brief No.8, 4 November 2021. Seunghan Lee, Suraje Dessai, Jouni Paavola, Rachel Harcourt

Download or view policy brief: A practical approach to addressing barriers to national climate adaptation policy in the UK (PDF)

Brief summary

Climate adaptation policy in the UK is ineffective and fails to address the many barriers to implementing adaptation in practice. As climate change impacts are increasing, there is an urgent need to address these barriers. Focusing on England, this policy brief provides a practical approach to systematically understand and address these barriers for policymakers and practitioners who operationalise national adaptation policy.


  • Barriers to national adaptation policy are a major reason for the lack of adaptation action
  • Working with stakeholders, we identified ten key barriers to the National Adaptation Programme (NAP) in England and mapped their mechanisms, including origins, influences, and relationships
  • Using this map, we show how to develop practical solutions to adaptation policy problems and related barriers
  • We recommend that NAP practitioners should consider the barriers in the NAP process and develop solutions based on a deeper understanding of these barriers

Urgent need to tackle barriers to national adaptation policy

The UK National Adaptation Programme (NAP) has been in operation since the Climate Change Act (2008), to address the climate change risks and opportunities that are identified in the UK Climate Change Risk Assessments (CCRAs). Evaluations have revealed a concerning lack of progress on adaptation to climate change risks in the UK. The poor performance of NAPs indicates that they are failing to support action on adaptation.

There is limited understanding of the barriers to the implementation of adaptation policy identified, despite them repeatedly occurring in sequential NAP processes. To motivate action, there is an urgent need to find practical ways to overcome these barriers.

Key barriers to the English NAPs

We identified ten key barriers to the NAP in England based on a novel approach to deepen our understanding of the barriers, their origin, influence and relationships. We define these terms as:

  • Climate change adaptation: the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities
  • Barrier to adaptation: the factors that stop, delay or divert the development and implementation of adaptation actions, which can be overcome with additional effort, creative management, change in thinking, prioritisation, and related shift in resources, land uses, institutions, etc.
  • Origin: the factors that give rise to adaptation barriers
  • Influence: the consequences of the barriers to adaptation e.g. the problems in implementing national adaptation policy
  • Relationship: causal chains and links between factors, including the relationships between barriers, origins, and influences

Barriers were identified from eighteen interviews and a workshop held with key stakeholders in the development and implementation of English national adaptation policy (including government departments, agencies, and sector experts). We then mapped the relationships between barriers, their origins and influences (see Figure 1 in the policy brief (PDF)). The map makes it easy to see the causal mechanisms between factors.

Soft and hard barriers to NAPs

Key barriers are described as soft or hard based on the characteristics of each barrier itself and related sources (related barriers and origins).

Soft barriers: can be overcome with fairly simple, direct solutions, additional resources or efforts. The five key soft barriers identified were:

  • The frequent turnover of staff in the civil service
  • No specific allocation of funding to adaptation
  • Uncertainty of effectiveness of adaptation policy results
  • Lack of clarity of who should be engaged in NAP
  • Lack of understanding of adaptation

Hard barriers: cannot be overcome with simple and direct solutions, additional resources or efforts due to their complexity, lack of time, or financial and political limitations. The five key hard barriers identified were:

  • Poor communication between government departments
  • Lack of political will
  • The ongoing low priority of adaptation (non-compulsory actions for adaptation)
  • Mismatch in the timescale needed for adaptation action and government election periods
  • Insufficient understanding of the economic aspect of adaptation and related research

Procedures for devising practical solutions for barriers

Utilising the map presented in the policy brief (PDF), a series of steps is suggested to help policy practitioners understand the barriers to the NAP and related policy problems, and to devise practical solutions for overcoming the barriers.

  1. Check current problems that stakeholders face in the NAP process among the identified influence factors in the barrier map
  2. Identify the barriers and origins that are related to the problem by tracing relationships backwards and analysing what needs to be addressed first to solve the problem
  3. Develop effective and manageable solutions to reduce or overcome the problem, including related barriers.

If a solution database is prepared in advance - including suggestions and opinions from stakeholders and experts, and good examples of solutions - it will provide practical insights by allowing potential solutions in the database to be connected to related barriers or origins.

The brief further presents two examples, one each for a soft and hard barrier, of how the barrier map can be used to develop practical solutions.


Policymakers and practitioners of national adaptation policy repeatedly experience barriers to adaptation. To address this, we recommend that adaptation policymakers and practitioners in England and in the devolved regions should:

  • Consider the causes and implications of the barriers in adaptation processes, rather than seeing them only in isolation
  • Map the barriers, and update this map as new evidence emerges and implementation experience matures, focusing on understanding the factors which created the barriers (origins) and the implications of each barrier (influences) as well as the relationships between them
  • Devise solutions based on the deeper understanding developed through the mapping process
  • Address the soft barriers, that can be more easily overcome, first
  • Monitor and manage the barriers to adaptation to ensure the solutions are effective, repeating the process as necessary

About the authors

Seunghan Lee is a PhD researcher at the Sustainability Research Institute and ESRC Centre of Climate Change Economics and Policy in the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds.

Suraje Dessai, Professor of Climate Change Adaptation, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, and SPF UK Climate Resilience Champion.

Jouni Paavola, Professor of Environmental Social Science in the School of Earth and Environment and Co-Director of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) at the University of Leeds.

Rachel Harcourt is a Research Fellow in the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, and part of the champion team for the UK Climate Resilience Programme.

Further information

This policy brief is developed based on an excerpt from Seunghan Lee’s doctoral research.

Feature image editorial credit: M Barratt / Shutterstock.com

To cite this policy note, please reference: Lee et al. (2021) A practical approach to addressing barriers to national climate adaptation policy in the UK. Brief 8, Policy Leeds, University of Leeds. https://doi.org/10.5518/100/78

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