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A man splashing water on his head from a public fountain in Italy during a heatwave in July 2023. ;

Is the UK prepared for a future of extreme heat?

Uniting to address climate change around the world
Dr James Porter

Senior Lecturer in Human Geography

21 July 2023

The summer of 2023 so far has witnessed record-breaking temperatures in the northern hemisphere with millions of people across Europe, USA and Asia experiencing scorching heat higher than 40°C. With such extreme heat expected to be more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting due to climate change, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has called for developing action plans to deal with the deadly natural hazard. Dr James Porter, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, comments on the UK’s preparedness to deal with a future of extreme heat.

UK is ill-prepared to cope with heatwaves

The United Kingdom, regrettably, is ill-prepared to cope with the risks associated with extreme heat. This is somewhat disheartening given that the Committee on Climate Change has repeatedly ranked extreme heat as the second-most concerning risk since 2012, and the Met Office has projected the increased frequency, severity, and duration of heatwaves since 2009.

During the summer of 2022, the UK recorded an estimated 2,985 excess deaths owing to heat episodes. A point of concern is that 95% of those excess deaths were people aged 65 years or over. Urgent and comprehensive action is needed now, if we are to cope with the impacts of heatwaves.

Lack of political leadership and coordination

A lack of political leadership from the UK government is a major concern. There has been little or no coordination between government departments over the roles, responsibilities, and funding for extreme heat management. Despite the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) developing plans to tackle climate risks since 2012, known as the National Adaptation Plan (NAP), there has been little action to report.

Part of the concern here is that it is unclear who is responsible for what actions; which actions should be prioritised; over what timescales will the actions be implemented; or what criterion should be used to measure progress. In turn, there are gaps in evidence over what solutions are available, how well those solutions work, and where do low-cost, low-effort, solutions exist. One of the issues is that we have defined the problem of extreme heat too narrowly; we need to expand it.

Extreme heat is too narrowly defined

As of now, we are narrowly focused on health risks of heatwaves. For instance, the UK Health Security Agency has delivered a heat plan, but it's focus – given its name – is primarily on human health. Whilst this is understandable, given the significant number of excess deaths linked to heatwaves (especially compared to flood risk events), health is only one aspect of extreme heat.

There are several other important issues to consider and prepare for. Our transport systems may fail as temperatures rise. Railway tracks may buckle, signal failures may occur, and the tarmac used for our roads could melt. In extreme heat, demand on water can spike, leading to hosepipe bans, and even drought-like conditions which can have severe consequences for wildlife.

Narrowly focusing on health means that we miss these other important issues and the interconnections between them. Indeed, every day that a heatwave is in force we can expect considerable economic losses due to low work productivity. In 2010, a heatwave cost the UK economy £770m in lost staff days.

Improving our preparedness for extreme heat

We must think more carefully about how we build future homes and offices. Currently, our building guidance focuses on the need to keep homes warm to tackle cold winters. Insulation has worked wonders to increase energy efficiency and reduce heat loss. This is certainly welcomed in our efforts to reduce carbon emissions, yet those same efforts can lead to homes overheating in the summer due to a lack of natural ventilation.

The solution is not simple. Efforts to mitigate climate change can (unintentionally) close-off adaptation options. Perhaps it’s time to consider a ‘cool home’ allowance to help the most vulnerable people through periods of extreme heat just as we do with the winter fuel allowance. At a time of rising cost-of-living, such an allowance could enable people to rent portable air-conditioning units and pay to run them.

But air-conditioning is not the answer. Rather it is the symptom of an aging housing stock built to protect people from very different weather conditions. Unless new building standards require natural ventilation and measures to manage overheating – through cool pavements, shaded outside spaces, and green buildings – little will change.

It’s important to remember that the lifespan of a new home is hundreds of years. Failing to deal with the problem now will not only make extreme heat much harder to solve but will worsen the size and scale of the problem.

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James  Porter

James Porter

Senior Lecturer in Environment, Science and Policy Education

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