Will we need to cool our homes? Future contexts for social housing.

by Claire Brown

Photo by Craig Davis on Unsplash

In this third contribution to a blog series organised by the Climate Justice and Social Policy Group before COP26, Claire Brown, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, shifts the focus from heating to overheating, and explains the challenges we will face with cooling our homes as climate change accelerates.

Considering the temperatures in July 2021, many would think that yes, we need to have some sort of cooling for our homes. But is this a trend or an anomaly? Globally, overheating represents a significant risk to human life as a result of climate change. The heatwave in 2019 killed 892 people in the UK, a significant increase in previously associated deaths related to overheating. In 2020, this figure was nearer to 2,500 deaths. Further increases in temperatures will put pressure on people, buildings, and energy systems as people, tenants and landlords try to find resources and technologies to reduce the overheating issues that this will undoubtedly occur as people try to maintain a level of thermal comfort within their homes.

Housing makes up approximately 29% of the UK energy profile. The UK energy profile has a very limited percentage currently associated with on-site cooling. This might be because over 70% of housing in the UK is on average over 30 years old and they haven’t been updated, or because in the UK at present, it is not a common occurrence to find air conditioning or mechanical cooling in homes.  Instead, UK housing demand primarily consists of heating and energy services demand, including heating and lighting, highlighting issues around both the heating and cooling dynamics of current stock. But, what we can expect as a result of the examples seen in other countries is an increase in the demand for products and technologies that can reduce the heat of our homes. In China, for example, in heatwave conditions 50% of the energy demand is for cooling units. Whilst it is not expected that this would be replicated within the UK, a significant demand could be placed on the grid for cooling services for homes.

Overheating in housing is expected to increase exponentially in the UK over the next couple of decades. This is based upon the projected changes in climate change from the IPPC. This shows that in the most likely scenario, AR6, that the UK will experience warmer and wetter climates in 2050. The IPCC reports that over the next 20 years, it is expected that global temperature averages will increase by 1.5°C, and this is further supported by the UK Met Office research in their UK Climate Projections research. The most recent update provides a focus on how the UK needs to implement more resilience to limit the negative impact on people. This is especially true for those in housing that is already below standard for climate resilience and a risk to human health.

The risk to human health from changing environmental conditions has been heightened by the example of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This has further emphasised the linked issues for the 3.2 million homes reported to already be in fuel poverty in England. Heating and energy demand and the projected increase related to cooling requirements is a pertinent issue for those in fuel poverty. This issue also has significant implications for health. The NHS in England faces assessed costs in the region of £2.5 billion per year due to poor, cold, damp and inefficient housing. This presents an interesting and challenging policy debate, and also a unique opportunity for the future governance of energy and housing. This is the case both now, but also in the future as a consequence of climate change impacts and increased demand for cooling within homes.

Climate resilience is the ability to deal with an issue that is faced and led to no harm. At present, overheating and a need for cooling in homes is a risk that has not yet been fully appreciated within UK government policies. The increasing need for suitable energy efficient and climate resilient housing will have to be available for these properties from a health and safety perspective. But what can you do if you can just about afford your heating in winter? How do you keep cool in the summer? The answer is around solar shading – for those homes who cannot afford an air conditioning unit because of the cost. What are the options available? Thankfully, there are some that can ease the risk of significant overheating. Keeping the curtains or blinds shut is one such solution. Preventing solar gain within the day is also a simple yet effective way of reducing heat gain from particularly sunny days. This is relatively simple for people to do in existing homes, but what about those new build construction projects – do they account for a need for cooling?

The recent win for Goldsmith Street in Norwich illustrates how social housing can be provided within the scope of these cooling requirements. The design featured a brise soleil, shown below, which was included to take into consideration the projected overheating risk. This type of intervention will need to be a consideration for many future homes that are built to address this very issue.

Image of a window detail on a modern building in Norwich.
The Goldsmith Street design.

However, current UK Building Regulations are still awaiting an uplift on energy performance, and the long awaiting Future Homes Standard has not yet been released, leading to a delay in addressing further issues linked to climate change within the housing market. The current use of the air conditioning unit in the UK is low in the domestic market. Nonetheless, this is considered to be a potential market by manufacturers and a problem for those who monitor energy demand on the grid. Additional load will have to be managed and there is concern that current grid infrastructure could struggle to accommodate it. Conversely, if energy efficiency measures are introduced and this leads to a reduction in energy demand, the impacts of future demand could be managed more effectively.

Those coming to COP26 in November in Glasgow have the opportunity to influence those decision makers who can decide to act on climate and make a legally binding agreement – or we can leave it as business as usual. For those already in fuel poverty, or those who face significant impacts as a result of changing gas markets, the news that cooling might also be needed will be something that is difficult to digest and even more difficult to afford.

Claire Brown is a PhD Researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester.

Blogs give the opinions of the author(s), and not of the Social Policy Association.