GLOBAL climate change is the single biggest threat facing the planet. But what impact will it have in the West Midlands?

Our changing climate affects us all. It affects the infrastructure that supports our lives, environment, business and public services.

The climate change we experience now will be due to past greenhouse gas emissions, whereas, climate change later this century will be determined by the emissions we allow now.

But what happens if we fail to prepare for the changes that are already in the climate system? What will be the impact if we don't adopt sustainable energy in the West Midlands?

Sustainable energy is not just about using energy generated from clean sources and technology, it also involves utilizing energy wisely.

Failure to adopt sustainable energy may have drastic consequences for the West Midlands, including higher rainfall, greater risk of winter flooding, extreme weather patterns and fluctuating cost and supply of fuel.

The UK Climate Impact Programme has produced two scenarios of regional climate change, which reflect uncertainties about the future level of greenhouse gas emissions.

If CO2 emissions remain high, summer rainfall is likely to decrease by 60 per cent, while winter precipitation is expected to increase by 30 per cent.

In a high emissions scenario, annual average daily temperatures are forecasted to increase by five degree Celsius by 2080.

Significant climate change is also expected by 2080 if greenhouse gas emissions are low, however, the picture appears less extreme.

Summer rainfall is projected to decrease by 30 per cent, while winter precipitation is thought to increase by 15 per cent.

If CO2 emissions are low, annual average daily temperature is predicted to increase by three degree Celsius in the next 70 years.

These scenarios demonstrate how the West Midlands climate will differ if we fail to adopt sustainable energy resources.

But what impact will higher temperatures and erratic weather patterns have on the people and businesses in the Midlands?

Bridget Woodman, research fellow at Warwick Business School, said: "Climate change is not just about the effect on weather.

"If we continue to use indigenous energy supplies we could be looking at the extinction of certain species and a possible threat to human health."

There are two types of direct health effects of climate change. The first are caused by projected higher temperatures, including increases in illness and death from heat stroke and dehydration.

In summer 2003, some 20,000 people died during a heat wave in France.

The second type of direct health effect is injury, illness and death caused by extreme weather conditions such as tornadoes, floods and winter storms.

Climate change could also have significant indirect health effects.

With increasing temperatures and humidity in the Midlands, disease carrying insects usually restricted to countries along the equator may migrate North, resulting in infectious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever becoming a common affliction in the region.

Increased illness related to air pollution is another potential indirect health effect of climate change.

Children, the elderly and people suffering with cardio-respiratory problems have the highest risk of experiencing adverse health effects due to air pollution even at today's levels. Increasing temperatures in the future indicate that the air pollution may worsen, putting a greater number of people at risk.

Health problems resulting from climate change will consequently impact on businesses in the West Midlands, if we fail to adopt sustainable energy resources sooner rather than later.

Organisations need to introduce contingency plans to cope with health problems resulting from climate change, as staff absences reduce productivity and subsequently effect profitability.

Flexible workforces will be needed to accommodate for employees suffering from health effects of climate change.

The NHS will also have to adapt to the increasing numbers of patients suffering from infectious diseases.

Funding will have to be reviewed as resources are deployed to tackle these contagious infections.

This was illustrated by this year's flooding at Langley Green caused by heavy rainfall.

Commuters in the West Midlands were delayed by up to 90 minutes between Birmingham Moor Street and Kidderminster due to submerged tracks. Even when services started running again they were at very reduced speeds.

With even more extreme weather conditions expected due to climate change, this type of disruption could become a common place in the Midlands.

Changes in extreme weather events are likely to have a bigger impact on our lives than slight shifts in average weather.

Droughts caused by reduced summer precipitation pose just as big a threat to life in the West Midlands as does flooding caused by heavy rainfall.

Water managers can usually handle droughts that come once every hundred years but what will happen if three 100 year droughts come along in successive summers?

That is the challenge water companies may soon face. Then they will be working with the unknown because what exactly is a 100-year drought when we are going through climate change?

Changes to rainfall patterns and amounts could affect how much water is available for people and the environment. But it could also influence demand for water.

Hotter temperatures may result in people drinking greater quantities or wishing to water their gardens more often. Resource systems dependent on summer river flows may become unreliable, with water shortages becoming widespread across the Midlands.

West Midland firms need to consider how these issues will effect their company. But the impact of climate change depends upon several factors including location and nature of business.

The insurance industry has been the first sector to adapt to the implications of climate change. The past 20 years has seen claims from extreme weather events soar and this trend seems set to continue.

Householders in the Midlands can expect insurance premiums to increase and some types of insurance, such as covering property close to rivers may prove so risky in the future that no insurance company will cover them.

Picturesque areas of the West Midlands may become ghost towns if residents are forced to move due to risk of damage from extreme weather conditions.

Agriculture is also expected to be hit hard by climate change. Flooding in 2000 cost an estimated £6.7 million worth of damage to agriculture in the West Midlands and increased winter rainfall is expected to exacerbate the effects.

On the other hand higher summer temperatures and lower cloud cover means greater heat stress to livestock is likely.

Consequently, there may be a reduction in dairy cow and pig fertility, loss in milk yields and quality and lower egg production.

Householders and urban businesses are also expected to feel the brunt of failing to adopt sustainable energy. If we continue to use indigenous energy we will soon be running on empty.

The September 2000 petrol crisis clearly illustrated the effect fuel shortages have in the region. The blockading of major oil depots caused the country to come to a standstill.

Local businesses were hit hard as supplies and products could not be distributed and staff were unable to travel to work.

If we fail to adopt sustainable energy on a large scale the September 2000 crisis may be indicative of future life in the West Midlands.

Energy is an increasingly crucial issue for business, particularly in terms of cost and security of supply.

Our finite energy resources are rapidly depleting and by 2010 the UK is likely to become a net importer of oil making us more susceptible to price fluctuations and interruptions to supplies.

According to Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, energy bills now account for between 30 and 40 per cent of total business spend for some energy intensive manufacturers in the region.