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UK should address “silent killer” heatwaves

UK: The UK government has been urged to tackle the “silent killer” of heatwaves amid claims that the UK is ill-prepared for rising temperatures.

In a report – Heat resilience and sustainable cooling – published today, the government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) argues that, with UK temperatures soaring above 40°C for the first time in 2022, increasing “silent killer” heatwaves could claim up to 10,000 lives annually without concerted action.

Recognising that the most vulnerable are at greatest risk, the EAC maintains that physical and mental health can also be severely impacted, the EAC presenting anecdotal evidence that the suicide risk is twice as high in the UK when the temperature was 32°C rather than 22°C.

Work-related injuries are also said to increase and interrupted sleep patterns due to high temperatures can cost the UK economy £60bn a year, or 1.5% to 2% of GDP.

The EAC claims that over 4.6 million English homes experience summertime overheating, and with 80% of homes that will exist in 2050 having already been built, retrofitting for net zero and thermal comfort will be needed on a vast scale. 

The EAC recommends prioritising passive cooling rather than air conditioning, which it blames for a surge in demand for electricity and the reopening of coal fired power stations in 2022 and 2023. It does, however, seek an increase in the energy efficiency of air conditioners.

It suggests that passive cooling measures, including nature-based solutions, such as green roofs, would reduce the need for energy intensive air conditioning units. Some of the passive measures EAC suggested include installing external shutters and coating the roofs of buildings with reflective white paint.

It recommends that existing initiatives on insulation and energy efficiency should be developed into a national retrofit programme focusing on insulation and ventilation, as well as passive measures, above active cooling mechanisms.  It sees fans as having a role, and suggests the government should consider amending building regulations to encourage the use of ceiling fans. 

“Projections suggest that without action, there could be 10,000 UK heat-related deaths annually,” commented Environmental Audit Committee chair, Philip Dunne MP. “High temperatures are costing the UK economy £60 billion a year: so measures to address the risks from overheating are simply a no-brainer. There are a number of relatively simple ways to mitigate overheating risk, such as installing shutters, increasing the size of green spaces and using reflective paint on roofs. Yet none of these measures are being rolled out at scale. There is now a real opportunity to focus on these measures in tandem with improving the energy efficiency of the country’s homes in a new national retrofit programme.”

He insisted that a cllear collaboration between government departments and local authorities would be necessary, supported by a clear messaging campaign and a pipeline of funding and skilled retrofitters to undertake the work needed. 

“Existing Government policy fails to grasp the urgency of the task at hand. A Minister with oversight on heat resilience must be appointed to oversee this important work,” he added.

The full report is available here.

Related stories:

UK unprepared for rising temperatures16 July 2023
UK: Switzerland, UK and Norway will experience the most dramatic relative increase in days that require cooling interventions if the world overshoots 1.5ºC of warming, a new report claims. Read more…

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