Extreme heat and drought is a global climate challenge of concern to Silent Spring Consultants who since the heatwave of 2022 have been working in collaboration with a range of stakeholders the United Kingdom and Europe. The world’s cities are heating up at twice the global average rate due to rapid urbanization and the urban heat island effect. By 2100, many cities across the world could warm as much as 4 degrees Celsius (°C) if GHG emissions continue at high levels – this is more than double the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C.
Hotter cities could be catastrophic for public health. If the current trends in
urbanization and increasing heat continue, it is expected that the urban population
exposed to high temperatures – that is, average summertime highs above 35˚C
– will increase 800 per cent to reach 1.6 billion by mid-century. The challenge is
compounded by the fact that the impacts of urban heat are not evenly distributed.
Lower-income districts within a city are often hot spots due to a lack of green spaces
and to the co-location of industrial operations, and residents of these areas are
also less likely to be able to afford or access cooling for thermal comfort. These
communities are usually the most vulnerable to heat, disproportionately bearing the
negative impacts of excess warming.
In the absence of focused policy and market-based interventions, market behaviour
defaults to an increasing number of people relying on air conditioners to address
rising heat. Already, 2.3 billion people in the increasingly affluent lower-middle class
in developing countries are on the verge of purchasing an entry-level air conditioner
– typically the unit that is the most affordable, and likely the least efficient, on the
market. This can be a quick and localized fix for those who can afford it, but it comes
with severe consequences, where the emissions and waste heat from cooling
perpetuate a vicious cycle where mechanical cooling is further warming our cities,
necessitating even more cooling and further compounding the equity divide for
those who are unable to afford access.
United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Beating the Heat: A Sustainable Cooling Handbook for Cities. Nairobi.