A new Parliamentary report spearheaded by Oxford Martin researchers has urged the UK Government to introduce a national heat resilience strategy to prepare the UK for the widespread impacts of a warming world.
In February 2023, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) invited leading academics to pitch ideas for a future inquiry to the panel members. The winning entry came from Oxford University academics Associate Professor Radhika Khosla (Smith School of Enterprise and Environment) and Dr Nicole Miranda (Oxford Martin School and Department of Engineering Science), based on their research as part of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Cooling. They highlighted what they saw as a blind spot in Government policy regarding resilience to, and cooling from, the increasing levels of heat being experienced in the UK.
After their pitch was chosen, Professor Khosla and Dr Miranda acted as specialist advisors for the inquiry, helping to shape the scope and review submitted evidence. The concluding report, published today, recommends several urgent calls for Government action. These recommendations were based on over 500 pages of submitted written evidence and two sessions of oral evidence. Key witnesses included the Met Office; the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA); the International Energy Agency (IEA); representatives of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry; the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Local Government Association (LGA); and leading researchers.
We hope the Government will take these recommendations seriously, particularly the appointment of a Minister for heat resilience to act as a focal point for coordinated action.
In particular, the report highlights the critical need for a holistic UK heat resilience strategy for coordinating the response to rising temperatures, which are predicted to cause more frequent and severe heatwaves. This drew on research published by Associate Professor Khosla and Dr Miranda last year which found that the UK is one of the countries most at risk of experiencing dramatic relative increases in uncomfortably hot days, but remains ‘dangerously unprepared.’
The new EAC report highlights the serious challenges that increasing heat poses for health, wellbeing and productivity, including:
- Increased risk of illness or death from dehydration and heatstroke;
- Greater demand for cooling technologies, which could lead to energy blackouts at peak times;
- Exacerbation of existing conditions and sleep deprivation, leading to productivity losses;
- Severe impacts on the UK housing stock, which is not currently designed to cope with excessive heat and is at risk of overheating.
The report outlines several recommendations to be adopted as part of a comprehensive national heat resilience strategy:
- Appointing a lead Minister for heat resilience;
- Introducing a naming system for heatwaves (similar to the naming system for storms) to help communicate the threats that heat can pose;
- Prioritising passive cooling systems that do not require energy consumption, such as nature-based solutions, for example shading, parks, trees, water bodies and green roofs;
- Extending current building regulations covering overheating mitigation to include refurbishments of existing properties, not just new builds;
- Introducing an ambitious housing retrofit programme which addresses the risks of overheating;
- Incorporating humidity levels into weather forecasts and heat health alerts. Humidity is an important factor in how the body experiences heat, yet this does not currently feature prominently in weather-related communications.
The Government is legally required to respond to the report’s recommendations within two months’ time.
Dr Nicole Miranda said:
‘For me, one of the biggest outcomes from this work was the overwhelming evidence base to reinforce the urgent need for a focused, UK-wide strategy for heat resilience. We hope the Government will take these recommendations seriously, particularly the appointment of a Minister for heat resilience to act as a focal point for coordinated action.’
Professor Radhika Khosla added:
‘The opportunity to contribute came about thanks to a newsletter sent by the Oxford Policy Engagement Network (OPEN) and quick action from the Smith School's policy and communication teams. The outcome demonstrates what is possible when researchers and staff work together strategically. It is also a testament to the hard work of researchers at the Oxford Martin Future of Cooling Programme and Oxford Smith School.’
Dr Laurence Wainwright, from the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, was invited to present oral evidence to the committee. His work has been instrumental in highlighting the impact that extreme temperatures have on mental health. He said:
‘Some of the evidence I gave which appeared in the final report makes for confronting and sobering reading; such as the risk of suicide doubling between 22°C and 32°C - or the degree to which symptoms in some psychiatric conditions can be significantly worsened during extreme heat. I hope in presenting this research I have been able to make a case as to why heat and mental health must be taken much more seriously. The test now will be the thoroughness and speed at which practical, tangible steps are taken to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable groups during heatwaves.’
Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:
'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 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.