What does the UK’s extreme heat warning mean for energy poverty?

Earlier today, the Met Office issued the first ever Red Extreme heat warning for the UK, with temperatures of 40°C forecast for the first time next week. This is a deeply worrying situation, with the implication that the effects of the heatwave are predicted to be so severe and/or prolonged that they will extend outside the health and social care system. In other words, the extreme heat could cause illness and death, including among those with no pre-existing illnesses.

This is a sadly avoidable crisis that climate scientists have been warning us about for years, and which for the most part successive governments have ignored. Clearly action must be taken now to adapt to this new reality and to mitigate harm to people and planet.

A few years ago, my colleagues Neil Simcock, Saska Petrova, and Stefan Bouarovksi joined me in calling attention to summer overheating as a distinct facet of European energy poverty that needed mainstream recognition. Our article in Energy and Buildings provided evidence from across Europe, as well as framework for understanding vulnerability to summertime energy poverty – which I’ll briefly summarise here.

We know that housing plays a huge role in mitigating the risks of excessive indoor warmth. Our  research within Eastern and Central European countries found that overheating was most common in districts dominated by large apartment blocks, particularly if the building lacked cooling features such as shutters and tiled floors, natural shading from trees, and the ability to cross-ventilate.

Beyond the infrastructure of the home, each person’s capacity to adapt is also important, and this is shaped by factors such as the accessibility of cool spaces (both in terms of the provision of cooling centres, and a person’s ability to travel to said centres), household income, and wider social relations. A third important factor to consider is each person’s sensitivity to harmful consequences, which is primarily driven by a person’s age (with more severe impacts for very young and old populations), and health status.

The below diagram simplifies what is in reality a very complex set of interactions, but nonetheless helps us to visualise the diverse range of contingencies that are at play in determining household-level energy vulnerability.

Figure 1 Conceptual diagram of vulnerability to excessive indoor heat. Source: Thomson et al., 2019: pg 27. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378778818324307#fig0004

We argue that significantly more research is needed in Europe on indoor cooling and the impacts of summertime energy poverty, with a particular focus on:

  • The characteristics of Europe’s housing stock and demographic make-up in relation to space cooling: dense urban areas prone to overheating with relatively low-income differentials, but with an overrepresentation of vulnerable households.
  • Europe’s relative unpreparedness – with the exception of the Mediterranean region – to summer heat; our study has shown that space cooling-related energy poverty affects countries located well into the European north, where the notion that households may struggle to cool their homes is outside the focus of public attention.
  • Inequities around space cooling as part of a wider set of difficulties in securing adequate energy services, among which space heating, lighting and appliance services stand out.

In addition, we point out implications for policymakers and how they conceive of and respond to energy challenges:

  • There is an urgent need to move beyond over-simplistic assumptions of seasonal climate needs, towards the commissioning of new research on year-round vulnerability
  • Climate risk assessments should include measurement of the preparedness for heat waves in the domestic sector
  • More data needs to be collected – in this regard, we call on Eurostat to reverse their decision to stop collecting EU-level data on indoor cooling issues and air conditioning
  • Attention should be paid to adaptive practices – understanding how households adapt to heat is important, as is promoting low-impact ways to stay cool in order to avoid air conditioning becoming an established practice as this could place unmanageable pressure on electricity grids, create tensions with carbon reduction goals, and increase the financial vulnerability of households.

The reality is that many countries worldwide are facing increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme heatwaves. Let’s heed the warnings of the Met Office and take decisive action now.