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Q&A: Climate change and urgent risks to the built environment

Words:
Chris Foges

The Climate Change Committee is the UK government’s independent advisor on emissions targets and preparations for climate change. CCC member and Bartlett professor Michael Davies explains the findings of its latest reports

What does the CCC’s Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk say about the built environment?
It identifies the eight most urgent risks, of which one is overheating in buildings. At the extreme, that brings increased risk of mortality: there are several thousand heat-related deaths every year in the UK and that’s predicted to triple by mid-century. Heat can also affect sleep, cause discomfort and impact productivity in offices, for example. There are challenges in schools, prisons, hospitals and care settings – both for new builds and retrofits. We urgently need to amend regulations to reflect that.
 
Why is a rapid regulatory response important?
Over the next five years, 1.5 million new homes are due to be built in the UK, and we should start to retrofit existing buildings at the rate that’s required to reduce emissions. The risk is that we lock in future problems by inadequate construction. Adding insulation is valuable in reducing energy demand, but without a carefully co-ordinated approach to ventilation it can increase the risk of overheating. Low-energy retrofitting is absolutely essential, but must be done in ways which minimise the risks rather than aggravate them. 
 
What does your progress report to parliament on climate change mitigation and adaptation tell us?
There has been a great success in reducing emissions from electricity generation, but that hasn’t been matched in transport, industry, agriculture or the built environment. It’s a big challenge now, and we still await the government’s much-delayed Heat and Buildings Strategy – expected imminently – which is critical to reducing the carbon emissions of millions of dwellings. Adaptation action has also failed to keep pace with worsening climate risk. 
 
Is the importance of adaptation often overlooked?
Yes. There is a perception that if we focus on emission reductions everything will be fine, but that’s not the case. The climate has already changed. There is now 25% chance of a hot summer like that of 2018, compared to 10% a few decades ago. Our current housing stock is not fit to cope with that. It’s likely that the UK will experience something like a further 0.5ºC temperature rise by mid-century, even in really ambitious scenarios. Alongside the vital mitigation work – reduction of emissions – we need to adapt the built environment for the climate change that is already locked in. 
 

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