Government response on adapting to heatwaves a “missed opportunity”

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has said that it expects the UK Government to provide more detail on its plans to adapt the UK to climate change, as it publishes the government’s response to its report on Heat Resilience and Sustainable Cooling.

In its report, the EAC cited findings that heat-related deaths could rise to 10,000 every year without concerted actions to adapt to the warming climate. It found that while the UK population spends on average 90% of its time indoors, the country’s housing stock is not designed to cope with excessive heat, and millions of UK homes experience summertime overheating.

With four out of five homes set to exist by 2050 having already been built, and the UK having some of the oldest housing stock in the world, the EAC recommended launching an ambitious and comprehensive national retrofit programme to adapt the UK’s houses for the demands of net zero. It recommended this be delivered via local authorities, and underpinned by long-term funding and prioritise vulnerable households.

In response, the government has fallen short of committing to a retrofit programme on this scale. Ministers say that the Heat and Buildings Strategy, published in 2021, sets out the government’s actions to reduce emissions from buildings, and point to recent announcements extending support in this area. The government also says that it has made progress improving energy efficiency in homes, indicating that 48% of homes in England have now achieved an Energy Performance Certificate C level.

Meanwhile the EAC recommended that standards covering overheating in new buildings – Part O of the Building Regulations 2010 – should be extended to cover not just material changes of use but also refurbishment of existing properties. In its report, the committee recommended that ministers set out whether the government would pursue this, or if not, explain how the UK would achieve its commitments on global cooling. The government does not say whether it plans to extend these regulations.

Another of the EAC’s recommendations centered on nature-based solutions to climate change in urban areas, such as trees, parks and bodies of water, which have cooling effects alongside a host of co-benefits. In its 2023 Adaptation Progress Report, the Climate Change Committee also found that there was “no requirement for local authorities to protect or provide green space”, and that funding commitments were required to maintain parks and green spaces.

The EAC welcomed Natural England’s Green Infrastructure Framework (GIF), which is intended to help planners improve green space in urban areas, as a “welcome step forward”. It called for the government to take action to expand urban green spaces, including by mandating local authorities to use the GIF and introducing a statutory requirement to protect green space. However, the government says local authorities are responsible for delivering new green areas and says it is currently not planning to mandate local authorities in urban areas to use the Green Infrastructure Framework, as the Committee had recommended.

Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Philip Dunne MP, said, “Extreme heat is already affecting health and livelihoods in the UK. While there is much to welcome in this response, there are still serious unanswered questions about how the government plans to respond to a rapidly warming UK climate. This is frankly a missed opportunity.”

Dr Radhika Khosla, Associate Professor at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, University of Oxford, who acted as Specialist Adviser for the EAC’s inquiry, said, “The government’s response is a positive start – it demonstrates a recognition of the threat of extreme heat and details the existing steps in place to mitigate it. However, the levels of coordination, knowledge, and capacity building required for a rigorous National Heat Resilience and Sustainable Cooling Strategy are not yet in place. The proposed ‘cooling outlook document’ provides a baseline but will require an integrated and strategic roadmap that is implementable. Looking ahead and recognising the threat of extreme heat and the existing measures that can help are important first steps, but there remains a lack of urgency and commitment to further action.

“Two gaps that require immediate attention are the need to hone in on overheating in existing buildings and retrofits, and the push to make the protection of green spaces, vital for passive cooling, a statutory requirement for local authorities. The government notes that voters can take action “at the ballot box” if they feel their local authority is not doing enough in this regard. But, as the heatwave of 2022 demonstrated, extreme heat will not wait for electoral processes to complete before it has a devastating impact on population health and productivity. The government’s response is an important first step, and hopefully one that leads to a sustainable and actionable heat resilience strategy for all.”


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