Blog Post

London cannot afford to ignore the damage being caused by extreme heat

London’s warmer than expected summer is causing an ever-increasing array of problems for the city. Our Communications Officer Jeeshan Choudhury provides a recap of the heatwave-induced damage, and considers what needs to happen next.

London has been dealt a tough hand since the turn of the decade, having to steer its way between global policy challenges including economic recovery from the pandemic and local issues such as negotiations over long-term funding for its transport network. But starting with a handful of days in July that seemed to last for an agonising eternity, the capital has been given an ominous glimpse into a challenge it may be even more pressing to address: searing heat with the capacity to rewrite record books and reach unwanted new highs. 

The recent experience of these temperatures has caused major problems for Londoners and made its mark on most aspects of life in the city, including how we travel and work. Centre for London’s team were by no means exempt from this: on 18 and 19 July as the UK recorded successive hottest days of the year, including a record temperature for the nation in excess of 40°C for the first time, our leadership team advised us to avoid travelling into our office, cancel meetings and restructure working patterns to avoid working through the worst of the heat during afternoons. Although these disruptions are minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things (which also opened up the opportunity to create some sunshine-themed playlists to pass the time), they are indicative of the disruption to ordinary routines that can occur when a city finds itself unprepared to deal with the impact of climate change. They were perhaps also relatable problems for most of the workforce across London and the UK.

In fact, the full extent of problems brought about by this scorching predicament have made it apparent that London is not built for the weather it currently faces – not to mention the weather it will face in 10, 20, or 50 years’ time. At peak temperatures in July, the Mayor of London had to urge commuters to avoid the Tube unless their journeys were “absolutely necessary” due to heat-related speed restrictions, and this wasn’t the only essential service brought to a standstill. Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS trust suffered a “critical site incident” due to extreme heat, causing IT system and air conditioning failures that resulted in cancelled operations and a loss of patient information. Problems like these are a clear warning of the risk to life posed by unexpectedly warm weather, and a reminder to avoid complacency over heatwaves and what they truly mean for people in practice. The most serious consequences were best highlighted by the London Fire Brigade having to take 2600 calls in a single day on 19 July, as opposed to a typical 500 , declaring a major incident and subsequently dealing with the “busiest week” in its history, culminating in pleas from London’s Fire Commissioner for the urgent measure of a national ban on disposable barbecues to prevent even more damage. Right now, as the nursery rhyme of old goes, London’s burning.  

What, then, needs to be done to adequately respond to the major environmental challenge that lies ahead for our city? London is far from the only global city to experience sweltering temperatures, but the issue lies with our infrastructure being ill-equipped to withstand heat. To successfully respond and adapt will therefore be a wide-ranging task that involves making our homes, roads, rails, and public spaces more resilient against heat, with possible solutions including better indoor ventilation, greater use of trees to provide more shade for outdoor public spaces, and the acceleration of a wide-scale programme to retrofit homes and workplaces in London to improve their energy efficiency and cut emissions. In the drive to make London a city ready for the impacts of climate change, we must also recognise that issues such as the likelihood of living in a building prone to overheating currently affect those on the lowest incomes the most. There is a need for city leaders to ensure that any green transition embraces climate justice and provides targeted support to avoid a two-tiered outcome, between those well-equipped to cope with rising temperatures and those left behind.  

There is no doubt that work is already underway to prevent environmental disaster causing irreversible damage to London’s future. However, the heat this summer has been unrelenting in a way many did not anticipate or feel ready for, with the next step likely to be a hosepipe ban from Thames Water, caused by a lengthy drought in what is already, counter to popular perception, a relatively dry city. The question London’s policymakers are now likely to ask themselves is: what if this is the start of a new norm, and one that has arrived in London far sooner than initially thought? The lesson from recent weeks must be to act with greater urgency and get to grips with responding to extreme weather before it is too late. 

Jeeshan Choudhury is Communications Officer at Centre for London. Read more from him here.