Environmental Audit Committee warns government must respond to climate-related heat risks that pose a major threat to health
As temperatures are predicted to reach 37C in parts of the UK in the coming days, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) will today call on the government to develop a coherent strategy to tackle the growing threat to health from heat waves.
The EAC will publish a new report, entitled Heatwaves: adapting to climate change, which warns the government's recently published Climate Adaptation Plan fails to do enough to address the health and productivity risks arising from the heat waves that are expected to become more frequent and intense in the coming years.
The report notes that the heat wave of 2003 was blamed for over 2,000 excess deaths and that climate projections suggest temperatures in excess of 38C could become commonplace by the 2040s as climate change is expected to result in an increase in the frequency and severity of hot spells.
"Heatwave warnings are welcomed as barbecue alerts, but they threaten health, wellbeing and productivity," said EAC chair Mary Creagh. "The Met Office has projected that UK summer temperatures could regularly reach 38.5C by the 2040s… Heatwaves cause premature deaths from cardiac, kidney and respiratory disease. There will be 7,000 heat-related deaths every year in the UK by 2050 if the government does not take action."
The government last week published a new Climate Action Plan for the next five years, which highlighted how floods and heat waves were the main climate-related risk faced by the UK. The plan detailed how the government is investing in new flood protections, taking steps to strengthen water infrastructure, and working with industry to encourage more businesses to develop climate resilience strategy.
However, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) last week warned the strategy contained a number of gaps, including a lack of action on improving building's resilience to heat stress.
The EAC today echoed that criticism, arguing the government had failed to develop a coherent strategy for addressing the increased risk of heat waves.
"The government must stop playing pass the parcel with local councils and the NHS and develop a strategy to protect our ageing population from this increasing risk," Creagh said. "The government needs to do more to warn the public of the health risks of heatwaves, particularly when they fall outside of the summer period, and should appoint a minister to lead work across government."
She added that specific policy interventions were also needed. "The government's new adaptation plan promises no effective action to prevent overheating in buildings," she said. "It must change building regulations and planning policies to ensure homes and transport networks are able to deal with extreme heat, and that local authorities and cities have green spaces and heat-resilient infrastructure."
However, the government defended its record on improving heat resilience, insisting that a number of measures were already in place to address heat related risks and that last week's Climate Adaptation Plan would deliver further improvements.
"We are taking robust action to ensure our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges a changing climate brings," a spokesperson for Defra said. "We will continue to support vulnerable people across society by issuing public health alerts during spells of hot weather, providing advice to schools, and taking steps to tackle overheating risks in new homes."
They added that the new Climate Adaptation Plan "sets out ongoing work and investment to make sure food and water supplies are protected, businesses and communities are properly prepared and the right infrastructure is in place".
Specifically, in addition to flood defence and water infrastructure investments the plan requires all clinical areas in NHS Trusts to have appropriate thermal monitoring in place and proposes increased green spaces in cities in a bid to ease urban heat island effects.
The government also has a Heatwave Plan for England that advises the NHS, local authorities, schools and businesses on how to prepare for and repsond to heat waves, and includes the Public Health England-commissioned 'Heat-Health Watch' alert service which operates from 1 June to 15 September.
The government also pointed to revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework, which were published yesterday and feature a new requirement for local housing plans to proactively mitigate for the risk of overheating from rising temperatures. At the same time the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently undertaking a research project investigate overheating risks in new homes and a new Building Bulletin from the Department for Education is expected later this year that will offer guidance on tackling classroom overheating.
However, the EAC report argues that the government's measures for tackling heat risk are not sufficiently co-ordinated and need to be scaled up to tackle escalating risks. The report sets out a 10 point plan for improving resilience to heat stress and reducing health risks, including compulsory new heat and water efficiency standards for buildings, the appointment of a Ministerial lead within the Department for Health and Social Care to address climate-related health risks, and the launch of a public information campaign to make people more aware of heat risks.
It also proposes advising businesses on heat wave risks and their economic consequences, including formal guidance on when employers should relax dress codes and allow more flexible working. And it suggests a consultation should be undertake on introducing maximum workplace temperatures, especially for work that involves significant physical effort.
In addition, it calls for better co-ordination with schools, transport providers, local authorities, and the NHS to ensure adequate steps are taken to prepare for more frequent heat waves and key infrastructure, including hospitals and care homes, are more resilient to extreme temperatures.
The report comes just a day after the CCC issued a statement similarly warning bolder action was needed from government to improve the UK's resilience to high temperatures.
Defra said it will "carefully consider each of the EAC report's recommendations". The heat wave may not even be over yet, but the debate over how the UK should respond to escalating heat risks is only just starting to hot up.
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