Britain may be avoiding the deadly heatwaves roasting southern Europe, but there is little doubt among scientists that last year’s record-breaking heat was the first of many such summers.
Worryingly for the UK, as a nation we are ill prepared for the consequences and not on course to remedy that, either.
Although Britain, like the rest of northern Europe, is unlikely to face the guaranteed disaster of 50°C-plus expected in the Middle East, parts of Africa and India, a lack of adaptation means less heat is needed here for temperatures to be dangerous.
“In Europe, buildings are designed to keep heat in, so we are at risk in the summertime that we overheat”, said Dr Nicole Martin of Oxford University, who co-authored a recent study which found the UK faced the second-highest relative increase in uncomfortably warm days, globally.
That ranking stemmed from the adaptation challenges facing the UK, she said. “Even a small increase in temperature can be really impactful and make countries [like the UK] more vulnerable,” she added.
Indeed, housing is one of the largest areas of concern raised by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the arm’s length body that monitors government progress, in a recent report.
To the incredulity of experts, the UK continues to build new homes that are not adapted to extreme heat because of delays to promised regulations. The Future Homes Standard was set to be consulted on again this year and won’t kick in until 2025 at the earliest.
“We’re building hundreds of thousands of homes a year which aren’t specced to deal with extreme heat or to retain heat in the winter. And that’s a a huge issue in terms of adaptation to climate change, but also in terms of keeping people’s bills down,” Tom Lancaster, head of land, food and farming at the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), a green think-tank, told i.
More worryingly, the CCC found that there was still no policy to tackle overheating in existing homes.
The houses we already have today will be the largest group of houses in 2050, but no plan exists to modify them. Our homes are built for the UK’s historic climate, which means dark roofs, no external shutters and minimal ventilation, said Dr Jesus Lizana from Oxford University’s engineering department.
The quickest fix to this would be for air conditioning to become commonplace in the UK, he said, but this would exacerbate the problem both by increasing the demand for fossil-fuel generated electricity and by dumping hot air outdoors and further worsening the urban heat island effect, where cities can be as much as 7°C warmer than the surrounding countryside.
Instead, experts want to see more passive adaptations such as reflective roofs with better ventilation, ancient techniques such as wind catchers to draw breezes into buildings and trees which provide both shade and cooling via evaporation.
Such solutions could take decades, however, and with millions of homes at risk of dangerous overheating, politicians and local authorities will have to look at other solutions, such as creating cooling centres in public buildings such as churches to allow citizens to stay safe.
The threat from extreme heat extends beyond the domestic, however, and will get into every crack in the public realm. For example, in the year to March, NHS hospitals in London recorded 269 overheating incidents in which patients were caused distress, equipment failed or medicines degraded.
Britain’s infrastructure is also ill-suited to hot weather. The railways, for example, have a “stress-free” air temperature of just 27°C, and can start to buckle above 30°C.
According to Network Rail, using rails capable of surviving such highs would make them ill-suited to surviving winter temperatures. Following last summer, however, it is now seeking advice for countries with large temperature fluctuations for how it might adapt.
Beyond infrastructure, another major concern is food security. More unpredictable weather means threats both to imported food and to home-grown supplies.
Last year, a drought late in the summer hit UK potato growers hard, shrinking yields and pushing up prices while this spring Britain faced a shortage of salad vegetables thanks to drought in Morocco and Spain.
Among the greatest threats domestically is a lack of water. East Anglia is Britain’s bread basket but also its driest region – Cambridge gets less rainfall than Marseille – and is likely to experience longer dry periods in future.
New regulations will kick in 2028 allowing the Environment Agency to crack down on water usage in agriculture, but Mr Lanaster told i: “The agriculture industry in eastern England is just not prepared for the extent of structured reform that’s coming down and down the track.”