More frequent and intense heatwaves are one of the impacts of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared it virtually certain that this will be a more frequent occurrence as the climate warms. Many places, including the UK, are already experiencing record temperatures and heat linked to climate change. Climate scientists found that the 40°C temperatures recorded in the UK in summer 2022 were made 10 times more likely by climate change. The Met Office has predicted that 40°C temperatures could become average summer temperatures by 2035.

In the face of these intensifying risks of extreme heat, the country must be ready to respond. As people can also be vulnerable to heat outside of heatwave events, improved planning for heat mortality at relatively lower temperatures is also needed.

The most effective way to reduce the risk of heatwaves and their detrimental impacts on health, productivity and infrastructure is through climate change mitigation: limiting global temperature riseby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shifting to a low-carbon economy.

But adaptation and resilience-building measures are needed alongside climate mitigation to minimise the heat-related damage that is happening now and expected to continue in the coming decades – regardless of how successful the low-carbon transition is. This requires appropriate policies in a range of areas, including health and social care, farming and the built environment.  

Being prepared for heatwaves can save lives, yet research shows that it is often after a heat event that places start to adapt. Improving preparedness requires a combination of long-term strategic planning and joined-up emergency response plans, early warning systems, and public and sectoral awareness of heatwave risk and actions to take.

What is the UK’s current policy approach to heatwaves and extreme heat?

Adverse Weather and Health Plan

The Adverse Weather and Health Plan (AWHP), published in April 2023, is the overarching policy for heat response in the UK, replacing the previous Heatwave Plan for England. It includes a heat health alert system as part of an impact-based strategy for preventing heat-related mortality and health impacts and minimising the pressure on healthcare systems.

The four alert levels are:  

  • Green (summer preparedness): Minimal impacts are expected but planning should be taking place.
  • Yellow (response): Heat impacts may affect people who are particularly vulnerable; action by the health and social care sector is needed in particular.
  • Amber (enhanced response): Impacts are expected to be felt across the health service and possibly other sectors too. Weather warnings may be issued.
  • Red (emergency response): A significant risk to life for even the healthy population which requires a coordinated response across sectors. An extreme heat warning is issued.

When an alert is issued, the combination of impact and likelihood is displayed within a risk matrix. Guidance on what to do at each alert level is provided through Heat-Health Alert action cards for professional bodies and organisations.

The AWHP is intended to be implemented and delivered by a range of partners including government departments, local authorities, the NHS and voluntary and community services.

The AWHP also addresses behavioural responses with public guidance on how to avoid detrimental health impacts from extreme heat, such as keeping out of the sun at the hottest time of the day (between 11am and 3pm), wearing suitable clothing, drinking plenty of fluids, and knowing how to identify and respond to heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

UK Government Resilience Framework

The UK’s ability to anticipate, mitigate and respond to a range of known and unknown risks that have a domestic or international root are covered in this framework. The framework’s core principles – developing a shared understanding of risk; prevention rather than cure; and involving the whole of society – if put into practice, would create an enabling environment for stronger action on heat risk. However, it identifies the National Adaptation Programme (NAP) as the main delivery mechanism for increased adaptation efforts, so policy relies heavily on this.

National Adaptation Programme

The UK’s Third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3) is the document that outlines how the Government will respond to the impacts of climate change over the period 2023 to 2028 and increase resilience. In terms of heat, its focus is on overheating in buildings and it also calls for further research into heat risk. The NAP has been criticised for not sufficiently addressing the adaptation measures needed to improve resilience to heat or setting out actions to be taken across the multiple areas affected by heat.

Is the UK’s approach to heat risk sufficient, and how could it be improved?

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) found in 2021 that the UK is unprepared to deal with a variety of climate change impacts, including extreme heat. In its third progress report to Parliament on the UK’s adaptation to climate change, published in 2023, it concluded that there is “very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks facing the UK”.

The heatwaves of summer 2022 brought the UK’s lack of preparation for extreme heat into focus. Research with government and agencies, first responders, utilities and transport and civil society organisations found that these stakeholders were pushed to the limit and would have struggled to cope if the heat events had been even more intense or longer in duration. They highlighted a lack of preparedness, specific resources and funding for heat risk, and identified a need for better communication, public engagement and education.

The UK does not currently have a National Heat Resilience Strategy, but following a consultation on heat resilience and sustainable cooling, the Environmental Audit Committee recognised the need for such a strategy to “draw together all of the recommendations outlined in the [fifth ‘heat resilience and sustainable cooling’] report and ensure coordinated action on all fronts”. The Grantham Research Institute’s ‘Turning up the Heat’ report suggests eight priority areas for such a strategy.

The UK’s approach to addressing heat risk could further include:

  • Raising finance and enhancing capacity for heat risk response and preparedness across sectors.
  • Increasing the ambition and urgency of adaptation plans and mechanisms.
  • Making buildings resilient to heat risk, e.g. considering overheating risk in retrofit programmes.
  • Policies and plans that ensure that health services are better prepared to respond to heat risk.
  • Setting a maximum working temperature toprotect worker safety.
  • Drawing on the lived experiences of those who are most vulnerable to heat impacts.
  • Clear and targeted communication and engagement to improve public understanding of the severity of heat impacts and how to stay safe.
  • Creating more parks and ponds to provide shade and cooling effects.

This Explainer was written by Candice Howarth with Natalie Pearson and Georgina Kyriacou.

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