The heat is on ...
Dr Hamid Pouran, Lecturer in Environmental Technology, examines the current European heatwave in relation to climate change.
If you don't believe in climate change or question human role in accelerating this phenomenon, that's fine! A small group of people still think like you and sadly the most powerful man in the world, the current US President, belongs to that club (which has made international efforts in addressing this global threat more challenging).
However, regardless of your opinion, all scientific evidence is suggesting that we need to get prepared, adapt our lifestyles and strengthen our infrastructures for the impacts of extreme weather events; e.g. heatwaves, flash floods, hurricanes and droughts that we expect to occur more frequently than before because of the climate change impacts. The record-setting heat wave in Europe in 2019 is the latest example.
The current heatwave, concerning the high temperatures, seems to be worse than what happened in 2003, which was the hottest summer in Europe since 1500 AD and caused a large number of heat-related fatalities. It's estimated that the heatwave in 2003 has caused at least 35000 additional deaths*. Heatwaves, like the one that Europe just experienced, affect our life at different levels.
Heat-stroke and dehydration are immediate results of being exposed to high temperatures, which puts extra pressure on hospitals and health professionals to treat those members of the general public affected. Moreover, less rain and more evaporation endangers the water supply in urban areas, and in the rural environments, crop yield drops, which means higher food prices. Buckled railway tracks, unbearable Underground transport system, melted road surfaces and even low river levels that could restrain sailing are direct effects of extreme temperatures.
That's not all; we are trying to move more and more towards clean energies. We expect to have a large portion of our electricity generated from renewable sources, particularly Photovoltaic (PV) solar, but heatwaves (high temperatures) reduce the efficiency of PV panels. Most of them are optimised to work best at temperatures below 25 degree Celsius, and each degree Celsius above 25 means that we have less output. Imagine a national grid with heavily integrated PV solar, which due to a heatwave faces a notable drop in electricity generation, while needs to respond to demands are higher than ever. Heatwaves test our infrastructures to their limits and remind us how vulnerable we are.
Arguing about what caused climate change doesn't help much, it's already here. The extreme weather events like floods and heatwaves that used to occur every few decades are expected to happen every five years after 2050. The only thing that we can do is to mitigate the process of climate change and its impacts. Moving towards decarbonisation is not enough at all; we need to invest in resilient infrastructures, and that's the least we must do for the next generation.
Such investment requires a thorough planning to help us to mitigate and adapt. Sadly, we have seen how poor planning by some wealthy countries has turned the potential of their green investments into tragedies. Masdar City, the city of the future, which is close to Abu Dhabi in UAE, is a prime example. It has already won some unique titles; a failed experiment in sustainable planning or the world’s first green ghost town, contrary to what it was supposed to achieve. Masdar was an ambitious plan based on the assumption that investing billions of dollars could create the world’s first zero-carbon city, forgetting that it is not the title that matters, it's the function that leads to sustainable progress.
We have a lot of lessons to learn; we are running out of time; we have limited resources but high ambitions. Perhaps besides wise investments in resilient infrastructures and advancing environmental technologies, we need to remind ourselves that climate change and its impacts do not respect political and geographical boundaries, they affect all of us.
- Dr Hamid Pouran is Lecturer in Environmental Technology at the University of Wolverhampton.
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