Is the UK prepared for the worsening heatwaves driven by the climate crisis?
Absolutely not, despite years of warnings from its official climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee. “We’ve been telling the government for over 10 years that we are nothing like well enough prepared in the UK for the really hot weather we are seeing now,” said Lady Brown, the CCC’s deputy chair.
The CCC’s five-yearly assessment in 2021 concluded the government was failing to protect people from a fast-rising risk. The report said: “Alarmingly, this new evidence shows the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation under way has widened [since 2016]. The UK has the capacity and the resources to respond effectively, yet it has not done so … Little preventative action is being taken to address health risks from overheating in buildings, and in homes in particular.”
The CCC’s experts said they were frustrated by the “absolutely illogical” lack of action on adaptation, particularly as acting is up to 10 times more cost-effective than not doing so. The CCC’s repeated call for heat-proofing standards for new homes was long rejected by ministers, who cited a commitment to “reduce net regulation on homebuilders”.
Can’t we just cope as we have with previous hot spells?
No, because we have entered uncharted territory, with frequent extreme temperatures over prolonged periods. “We’ve got a very severe heatwave at the moment and all the evidence that we have is that they’re going to get worse,” said Prof Nigel Arnell at the University of Reading.
The impact of these extreme heatwaves on people is deadly. “I’ve looked at the heatwaves in the past 10 years and we have had about 2,000 extra deaths each year in England,” said Dr Eunice Lo at the University of Bristol.
Why is heat-proofing buildings so important?
Because we spend most of our time in them. “We know that the housing stock is already overheating,” said Prof Mike Davies of University College London, who is a CCC member. “We think at the moment, approximately a fifth of it is, and that will get worse with projected climate change.”
“Over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of new homes have been built that are not resilient to future high temperatures,” he told the BBC. “These will now require costly retrofits to make them safe, habitable and water efficient in the future.” Another concern is the rising trend of empty offices being converted into homes, which without care poses a “deadly risk”.
Hospitals and care homes are especially important, as this is where the most vulnerable groups are – elderly people and those already unwell. But Miriam Deakin of NHS Providers said: “The NHS estate is not built to cope with extreme weather.”
How are the impacts being tackled at the moment?
In emergency mode, said Arnell. “But we can’t keep on dealing with extremes in crisis mode – they’re happening more and more frequently.” It might be acceptable to close the east coast mainline train route once a year, he said, “but what if it was closed every July for 30 days – that wouldn’t be acceptable”.
Deakin said: “NHS trusts have bought up bottled water to give out to patients and staff and have ice-cream vans onsite and hospital kitchens making ice lollies for their colleagues and patients. Trusts are also mounting fans and installing industrial cooling units where possible.”
What can be done?
Harness the power of shade, said Prof Hannah Cloke at the University of Reading: “They do this in other countries where it’s very hot, it makes a massive difference.” Keeping curtains and blinds closed is useful but still traps heat behind them, which seeps into the room eventually. Only external shutters keep the heat outside. Painting surfaces white can also help.
Trees for shade and cooling water features in urban areas are important too. “Walking into the university this morning through an avenue of trees, it was at least 10C cooler than out in the sun,” said Cloke. “We can no longer tolerate poor design of our buildings and our cities.” She also said public cooling places could be provided, as in Canada and elsewhere, where air-conditioned buildings or naturally colder ones such as churches are made available to the public.
Insulation can also make a big difference. In the UK, this is usually considered in terms of keeping heat in during the winter, but it is also effective at keeping heat out in the summer.
Either way though, the government’s main recent effort to increase home insulation was “botched”, according to a spending watchdog.
What about public awareness?
The stifling current heat is certainly attracting attention. But Bob Ward at the London School of Economics said: “More action is needed to inform the public about the dangers created by heatwave conditions. One part of the solution could be to name heatwaves in the same way that winter storms are now given names to gain the attention of the public.”
Cloke said: “We also need to have more sophisticated forecast-based warnings that are more focused on people. It shouldn’t just be about peak afternoon temperatures, even though these really are very high indeed.” They should also take into account other factors, such as humidity, and spell out the risk to people, she said: “Heatwaves are silent killers.”
Is there any good news?
The government finally introduced new building regulations on overheating in June. They state “reasonable provision” must be made to limit summer heating and “provide an adequate means” to cool properties. But they only apply to new homes, not the millions of existing homes that are overheating.
No new technology needs to be invented. Prof Mike Tipton of the University of Portsmouth said: “Rome was really horribly hot in the middle of the summer so what did the emperors do? They built Tivoli Gardens just outside the city, full of trees, water, and fountains. The answer has been there for at least 2,000 years.”
Why hasn’t more been done already in the UK?
“I think the major problem is global heating is perceived as being still a problem for the future,” said Tipton. “That’s the public health message that we really need to get across – this is a problem that we need to be dealing with now.”
Arnell said: “Progress is limited because responsibilities for action are spread across departments, agencies, private sector organisations and individuals. We will only make real progress when adaptation and resilience is given a high enough political priority.”
Greenpeace UK’s Rebecca Newsom was even more blunt: “Political inaction has driven this crisis under the Conservative government’s watch.”
July 18, 2022 at 09:27PM Damian Carrington Environment editor