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31 January 2024

MPs call for action amid warning of 10,000 annual heatwave deaths

31 January 2024

Urgent Government action is needed to boost resilience in extremely warm weather amid warnings that up to 10,000 people year in the UK could die as a result of heatwaves, MPs have said.

The increasing frequency and severity of such events are set to have a profound impact on public finances as well as health, with heatwaves potentially costing the economy about £60 billion a year, according to a report by the Environmental Audit Committee.

The committee’s Conservative chair, Philip Dunne, suggested the Government is not responding quickly enough to the evidence despite action on heatwave mitigation being a “no-brainer”.

The UK Health Security Agency issued its first ever “level 4” heat alert in July 2022 when 40C was recorded in this country for the first time.

Meanwhile globally, 2023 was confirmed as the hottest on record by a significant margin.

The report details the health impact of extreme heat which increases blood pressure and heart rate, raising the risk of illness or death caused by dehydration and heatstroke.

According to an estimate by the Office of National Statistics, there were about 4,500 heat-related deaths in 2022.

The annual rate could rise to 10,000 by 2050 in a plausible worst-case case scenario that does not see the required adaptation, according to the UK Health Security Agency – with over-65s and those with existing health conditions most at risk.

Hot weather has also been found to exacerbate mental health problems, worsen the side effects of medication and increase suicide risk, the report said.

The committee heard evidence that suicide risk is twice as high when the temperature was 32C rather than 22C.

The MPs described the social and economic case for accelerating heat adaptation measures as “clear-cut”,  recommending that the Government prioritises “passive cooling” which does not involve expending energy, unlike air conditioning.

The Government signed the “global cooling pledge” at the recent Cop28 climate summit which committed the UK to reducing cooling-related emissions by 68% by 2050.

The report also said nature-based solutions, including more parks, trees and green infrastructure, have significant cooling effects and should be prioritised.

These measures are considered particularly important in urban areas which have typically higher temperatures.

For example, London can be 8C warmer than surrounding rural areas.

Government action should be underpinned by a national strategy on heat resilience, which must include retrofitting homes on a “vast scale” for both net zero and protection to temperature, the committee said.

It added: “The Government must urgently bring forward proposals to encourage access to low-cost finance for householders to retrofit passive cooling measures.”

But the committee said concerns that a “net zero tradespeople crisis” driven by a predicted shortfall of 250,000 in suitable roles must be addressed.

The MPs also suggested that the threats posed by extreme heat should be better publicised by naming heatwaves, as is the case with storms, to boost public recognition.

Mr Dunne said: “The record temperatures we are seeing in UK summers, 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.

“Projections suggest that without action, there could be 10,000 UK heat-related deaths annually. 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 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.

“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.”

Mr Dunne said tackling overheating at scale “will not be a quick or easy undertaking” and would require collaboration between Government departments and local authorities.

Darren Rodwell, Labour environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, the public sense of unpreparedness will undoubtedly harden and grow.

“Councils are doing fantastic work to tackle climate change and we want our communities to feel secure in their homes and local areas.

“The public trust us most because we are rooted in communities and understand places, we must be given the tools and funding needed to make that happen.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We have set out a robust five-year plan to respond to the impacts of a changing climate and strengthen our national resilience – with action to improve infrastructure, promote a greener economy and safeguard food production.

“We are the first major economy to halve our emissions and have already taken steps to manage the risks of climate change – with new warning systems to alert the public to heatwaves and our Environmental Land Management schemes supporting farmers to make their land more resilient to the changing climate.”

“Nearly half of homes in England now have an Energy Performance Certificate rating of C. This is up from just 14% in 2010 and we are investing billions to ensure homes and buildings are even more energy efficient.”

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