Climate change dropped from government risk register

The first overhaul of the UK’s risk register since 2020 marks a significant departure from the previous approach to anticipating future threats
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By Jonathan Owen

04 Aug 2023

Despite the dangers they pose, “chronic risks” such as climate change, serious and organised crime, artificial intelligence and antimicrobial resistance have been dropped from the National Risk Register.

The decision marks a major shift in the way in which the government approaches risk. 

The latest register, released yesterday, is now based directly on the government’s internal, classified National Security Risk Assessment. 

“Developing a shared understanding of the risks we face is fundamental,” the document states.

The government has declassified more risk information than ever before, adopting a “transparent by default” approach, according to the register.

It focuses on “acute risks” which it defines as “discrete events requiring an emergency response.” 

Chronic risks are “distinct from acute risks in that they pose continuous challenges that erode our economy, community, way of life, and/or national security,” the updated risk register document states. 

They tend to “manifest over a longer timeframe,” and are approached “through strategic, operational or policy changes” rather than “emergency civil contingency responses", it adds.

Chronic risks were initially dropped from the NSRA. “The NRR is the external version of the NSRA and therefore has aligned with this change," the introduction to the refreshed register says.

The government is establishing a new process for identifying and assessing a wide range of chronic risks and is addressing them “through ongoing policy and operational work,” according to the document.

In the foreword, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden said the new register “reflects our more sophisticated understanding of the risk landscape following events such as COVID-19” and is “more transparent than ever.” 

He added: “We are giving businesses and other organisations as much information as possible about the risks they face, so that they can use this knowledge to support their own planning, preparation and response."

The register indicates the likelihood of risks actually happening on a scale of one, a “remote chance” of less than 0.2%,  to five - which represents a greater than 25% chance. 

Impact is measured on a scale from one, indicating “minor”, to five, described as “catastrophic” with the lives of more than a thousand lost and a cost to the country of tens of billions. To meet the threshold for inclusion in the register, risks would “have a substantial impact on the UK’s safety, security and/or critical systems at a national level".

Some 89 different risks are included. They are grouped under nine themes: accidents and system failures; conflict and instability; cyber; geographic and diplomatic; human, animal and plant health; natural and environmental hazards; societal; state threats; and terrorism. 

A “reasonable worst-case scenario” is presented for each risk, to allow “relevant bodies to undertake proportionate planning.”

The new register includes previously classified information about a number of potential risks. Examples include disruption to energy supplies following Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, drones being used to disrupt transport and other critical operations, and threats to undersea transatlantic telecommunications cables used for internet and communications.

Several “catastrophic” risks are flagged. These include “larger-scale” chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks, and the failure of the National Electricity Transmission System. Both are rated as “remote” possibilities. 

A future pandemic is listed as another risk that could have a catastrophic impact, with a scenario that “assumes 50% of the UK’s population fall ill during the whole course of the pandemic, with about 1.34 million people estimated to require hospital treatment, possibly resulting in up to 840,000 deaths”.

This is judged as being “highly unlikely” at between five and 25%.

The assassination of a high-profile public figure, a terrorist attack overseas “involving a significant number of British Nationals”, and a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, are among the risks classed as most likely - with a greater than 25% chance of happening.

Other risks assessed as comparatively most likely include a “technological failure at a UK critical financial market infrastructure” and a “disaster response in the Overseas Territories.” In contrast, the chances of events such as an earthquake, civil nuclear accident, or an aviation collision are “remote” at less than 0.2%.

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