A year ago today, on 19 July 2022, the UK experienced record-breaking temperatures that reached over 40°C and the Government declared a national emergency following the Met Office’s first ever issuance of a red ‘extreme heat’ warning. What needs to change so we are better prepared for these conditions, asks Candice Howarth?

In total, the UK experienced five heat periods last summer, leading to 2,839 excess deaths among those aged 65 years and over and 2,985 excess deaths among all, excluding Covid deaths. In Europe there were over 60,000 heat-related deaths. Heatwaves are silent killers, and older people, people with underlying health conditions, the young, and people directly exposed to heat are most at risk.

The 2022 heatwaves would not have been possible without climate change. We know that the July heatwave was extremely rare, a 1-in-1,000 year event, and was made 10 times more likely due to anthropogenic climate change.

And the heat has followed us into this year. Last month, June 2023, was the hottest June on record and the period 3–10 July the hottest week on record for the world as a whole. The heatwaves happening now across Europe and North Africa, North America and parts of Asia are a frightening preview of the UK’s future under a changing climate.

Is the UK prepared for extreme heat?

The simple answer is no.

Extreme heat is a relatively new challenge for the UK and the response is currently piecemeal, lacks a multi-sectoral approach that encompasses, for example, the health service, farming and construction, and does not sufficiently incorporate solutions that reflect local opportunities or challenges. Overall, there is insufficient research, policy or action to ensure communities, businesses and infrastructure are prepared for, and can adequately respond to this issue.

The impacts of heat are most felt by those aged over 65, where heat effects are felt once mean temperatures reach 17–18°C and heat-related deaths can become apparent from 24.5°C. A large proportion (76%) of heat-related deaths under a 1.5 °C changing climate is not attributed to heat extremes but, instead, can be attributed to moderate increases in temperature, such as a between 1 and 5 degrees above regional thresholds. Adaptation to high temperatures therefore should not be considered as purely seasonal, and instead a year-round priority.

Building resilience to extreme heat in the UK is one of the key priorities identified in the Climate Change Committee’s advisory report to government for the third Climate Change Risk Assessment. The CCC shows how the UK is not prepared to deal with a variety of impacts of climate change, including extreme heat. Its assessment of the UK’s progress in adapting to climate change concludes that there is “very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks facing the UK across cities, communities, infrastructure, economy and ecosystems”.

The Government’s National Adaptation Programme, the third edition of which was published earlier this week, addresses overheating but this is too narrowly focused on overheating in buildings and plans for more research. Back in 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee published its report on adapting to extreme heat. The country has had six years to address some of concerns raised by the Committee, such as the need to work more with local authorities to prioritise and incorporate resilience to risks of overheating in their local climate plans, but this has not been a priority.

To date, national policy and action have predominately focused on reducing heat-related deaths and preparing the health and social sector for more extreme heat. There has been limited work on addressing broader risks to government, businesses, the third sector and communities from extreme heat – such as impacts on agriculture and food security, productivity, infrastructure and buildings, and transport.

Furthermore, UK policy is only at the early stages of exploring how extreme heat will interact with other climate-related hazards, such as flooding, drought and wildfires, and how these compounding climate risks may further threaten communities, businesses and the built and natural environments.

What next for the UK?

A range of measures can be activated now to help keep places across the UK cool. These include ‘cool pavements’ that are more reflective of sunlight, increased shading, heat-sensitive urban planning (e.g. linear parks to enhance ventilation), and introducing more green and blue infrastructure such as planting more trees and bushes by the roadside and creating ponds. In addition, there are straightforward protective and preparative actions to reduce the negative heat impacts on people, such as applying sunscreen, using a fan, adapting clothing or evacuating people to cool spaces.

But more needs to be done. Climate projections show that extreme heat events will become more frequent and severe in the UK and climate change may increase the chance of reaching 40°C here to every 3.5 years by 2100.

How people perceive and react to these events will be important. While research has shown an increase in concern about hot weather linked to climate change in the UK across the last decade, people in the UK typically have positive associations with hot weather. This has in the past been compounded by persistent media representations of heatwaves and hot days as positive events. In this context it is particularly important that the public are made well aware of the risks they are exposed to and behaviours that need to be adopted. The UK needs to establish a more sensible ‘culture of heat’, learning from experiences of dealing with extreme heat across Europe and the globe, with effective communication, education and engagement on extreme heat and how people can prepare and respond.

We know that local authorities, emergency services and utility companies across the UK only just managed to respond to the heatwaves in 2022 and they did so with stretched resources. They are grappling with how to prepare for more severe and frequent extreme heat. Many others are unaware of the increasing risks associated with this. While it is encouraging to see investment in specific initiatives such as specialist training for the London Fire Brigade to tackle wildfires, a National Heat Resilience strategy is now needed, as called for by our Policy and Communications Director Bob Ward, to coordinate a strategic, joined-up approach to prepare for extreme heat to support and drive such efforts. 

If the Government fails to show more leadership on preparing for these extreme heat events, then we are likely to see a rise in heat-related deaths, wider impacts on workers’ health and productivity, and increasing rates of overheating in UK homes and buildings that are ill-equipped to stay cool in the summer. 

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