Keeping cool in a warmer world
In this blog for GreenWorld,
climate justice and energy campaigner Clémence Hutin writes about the
significance of Europe's heatwave of 2018, and how it should be a wakeup call
not for a #fossilfree Europe and for
tackling summer energy poverty.
No-one this summer can have failed to
notice that the world is on fire. Satellite pictures show us a brown, parched
continent. People are feeling the heat of climate change.
This must spur deeper, transformational
climate action across Europe. But with the chances of another such heatwave put
at once every five years (according to
current rates of global warming), action must also include helping people to
adapt and withstand the impacts.
The World Meteorological Organisation
already ranks 2018 as ‘one of the hottest years on record’, following a
worrying streak of broken records in 2016, 2015 and 2017. This year, the UK
experienced its hottest June ever, while forest
fires raged in the Arctic Circle during Sweden’s hottest July in 260 years, and in the surrounds of Athens,
at least 90 died in similarly devastating forest fires.
Thanks to ever-improving scientific
research, we can now more confidently state the influence of climate change on
extreme weather events: it made this heatwave twice as likely to occur.
But one overlooked question all this
heat raises is what this means for those living in energy poverty, unable to
cool their homes in summer?
summer energy poverty
When we think of energy poverty, we usually
think of freezing pensioners in winter unable to heat their homes. But energy
poverty also causes harm in summer.
Extreme summer heat poses a public
health challenge. Heatwaves already kill 12,000 people every year
around the world. These past weeks, record numbers of people were admitted to hospital in the UK, overloading
already stretched staff and resources. In Japan, more than 130 people have died
and 70,000 rushed to hospitals, while in Quebec,
the heat claimed the lives of 90.
But this is not solely a problem of heat
– it is also a problem of poverty and inadequate, inefficient homes. Across
Europe, the latest data tells us that about a
fifth of people cannot afford to keep their homes cool
in summer. This makes for a precarious position when heatwaves occur, as is
increasingly the case due to climate change. The poorest and most vulnerable
are disproportionately at risk. Elderly and children’s bodies are more
vulnerable to overheating. For socio-economic reasons, those with lower incomes, people of colour, and homeless people are also on the frontlines, as they tend to live in the most
inadequate homes (or none at all) and have the least access to cooling.
We know heat also combines to amplify
other environmental health risks – especially air pollution, which particularly
affects the elderly, people with heart conditions and chronic disease, those
working outside and children.
Strikingly, summer energy poverty
receives little attention from media or politicians. Eurostat, the EU
statistics agency, monitors numbers on winter energy poverty every year, but little data is available on summer energy
We know this heat is only going to get
worse. Heatwaves could increase 50-fold by the start of the next century. A new
study in the UK predicts that heat-related deaths are
set to triple to 7,000 a year by 2050. Current global warming trends could mean
three quarters of humanity face deadly
heat by end of century.
For those who can afford it, installing
air conditioning (AC) will keep them cool. But collectively, this promises only
to further warm the planet, as it draws more demand for (fossil) energy. Global
energy demand for air conditioners is set to overtake that of heating by 2060. In
some cities, AC already accounts for 40 per
cent of power usage. There are also immediate
negative consequences: ACs tend to heat up urban areas, exposing people
outside to even higher temperatures.
The way forward
What 2018’s heat has taught us is that
we need both more far-reaching and urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions (mitigation), medium-term solutions to help society cope with living
in a warmer world (adaptation), and immediate relief for the millions of
Europeans already suffering from overwhelming heat.
We are heading for a 3°C to 5°C warmer
world if we do not radically change our economic model. Current climate
policies, including new EU renewables and efficiency targets, are far from
adequate – and are being undermined by contradictory efforts to build new
pipelines, airport runways, fracking rigs and to subsidise fossil fuels. To
have a chance of a safe and cool climate future we need the strongest action
now to get Europe fossil-free.
We also need adaptation plans for all of Europe, to
prepare for hot (and stormy) years ahead. This heatwave has demonstrated we are
far from ready. We need better urban planning, more planting of trees and
better planning for city green spaces, better water management for our
agriculture, more effective forest fire prevention and coherent heatwave plans.
Massive investments in fitting out
insulated, energy-efficient homes has tremendous potential to both mitigate and
adapt. It can help protect people during heatwaves (as well as freezing
temperatures) – especially if it’s directed at the most vulnerable – and it
reduces carbon emissions and allows for a switch to 100 per cent renewable
And finally, we also need immediate
steps for relief. In 2003, a record-breaking heat wave killed 70,000 people in Europe. We
were not ready for the public health crisis then: hospitals were unprepared,
special care for the elderly and needy not put in place, information was not
disseminated. During heatwaves we need public awareness on health risks,
hotlines providing advice, free public transport, cooling areas, water
distribution in public spaces – and hospitals must be prepared. Will we be ready