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UK heatwave plan urgently needed to save lives, say MPs

The UK urgently needs a plan to prevent thousands of heatwave deaths a year as the climate continues to warm, a cross-party committee of MPs has warned.

More than 4,500 people died in heatwaves in 2022, the MPs’ report said, and this number could rise to 10,000 a year by 2050 without action. Heatwaves are “silent killers”, the MPs said, pushing up heart rate and blood pressure, with those over 65 and with existing health problems most at risk.

Mental health is also affected, with the risk of suicide twice as high when temperatures rise from 22C to 32C, and poor sleep due to hot nights can cost the economy £60bn a year in lost productivity, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) reported.

Temperatures in the UK rose above 40C in 2022 for the first time, and 2023 was the world’s hottest year on record. But record hot summers could happen every other year by 2050, according to the Met Office. Scientists are clear that every heatwave is being made more likely and more intense by the climate crisis.

The social and economic case for rapid work to protect people from heat is a “no brainer”, said the MPs. The report calls for more green spaces, fans in homes, and window shutters and white-painted roofs to reflect the heat of the sun. Almost 5m homes in England already suffer from summer overheating, the MPs said, making the scale of action required “vast”. But the work could be done alongside energy efficiency retrofits, they said.

“The record temperatures we are seeing, triggered by climate change, pose significant risks to health and wellbeing, and swift action must now be taken to adapt to the UK’s changing climate,” said the EAC’s chair, Philip Dunne.

“Measures to address the risks from overheating are simply a no-brainer, yet none are being rolled out at scale,” he said. “Existing government policy fails to grasp the urgency of the task at hand.”

The government’s most recent climate adaptation plan was described as “very weak” when published in July 2023. The EAC report said: “It is mainly a compilation of existing policy and initiatives and does not demonstrate sufficient urgency or ambition.”

The report recommends nature-based solutions such as parks, trees, ponds and green roofs to cool communities, citing evidence that large cities like London can be up to 8C hotter than surrounding rural areas. It also said the government should consider changing building regulations to encourage the use of ceiling fans.

Men with long-handled brushes
Volunteers paint rooftops in the Bronx, New York, using a material with high solar reflectivity and infrared emissivity. Photograph: Ken Cavanagh/Alamy

Coating the roofs of buildings with highly reflective white paint was backed by the MPs, with evidence from New York City showing that this can substantially reduce indoor temperatures. Fitting external window shutters can cut the risk of heat deaths in homes by about 40%, experts told the MPs, giving a similar impact to air conditioning.

The MPs said widespread use of energy-intensive air conditioning units risked a vicious circle of rising carbon emissions, which then trap even more heat in the atmosphere. They called for action to increase the energy efficiency of air conditioners.

The heat-proofing of homes should build on existing initiatives on insulation and energy efficiency to create a national retrofit programme delivered by local authorities and supported by long term funding, the MPs recommended.

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The government introduced new regulations in 2021 to prevent the overheating of new residential buildings, but these do not apply to the existing buildings that 80% of people will still live in 2050, or offices converted into flats. The MPs also said proposals to encourage access to low-cost retrofit finance for householders were urgently needed. The government has yet to respond to a consultation on this that it conducted in 2020.

The Met Office should trial naming heatwaves to raise public awareness, as it already does for storms, and giving humidity levels in weather forecasts. Humid heat is especially dangerous to health as it hampers the body’s ability to cool itself via the evaporation of sweat.

Bob Ward, at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, said: “This careful and measured report correctly identifies the many shortcomings in the government’s feeble approach to managing heatwaves.

“However, the report could have been even clearer that it is the abysmal state of Britain’s housing stock, with many homes too poorly designed and constructed to keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer, that is killing thousands of people every year,” he said.

“It is a national scandal that the government has failed to implement a nationwide retrofitting programme to make homes and offices across the country more resilient to extremes of temperature.”