Most people are comfortable with the need for insurance to provide some protection, restitution or compensation for loss – they’ll get something back when the worst happens. The problem with climate breakdown is that, in many ways, there is no ‘getting something back’: like Humpty Dumpty, the Greenland Icesheet, the West Antarctic Icesheet and the glaciers of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya mountain range cannot be put back together again and their melting will lead to massive sea-level rise, further warming, and in the case of the Himalayas, the collapse of agriculture in huge areas of Asia.
COP26 – the recent climate change conference – focussed on obtaining pledges from countries to radically limit carbon emissions in order to reduce both the likelihood of global over-heating and the impacts that come with that. However, limiting emissions will not suffice; cover for the breakdown of our climate also needs drawdown of excess CO2 from the atmosphere and adaptation of our built environment. And it all has to happen at the same time, as time is short, and any number of tipping points may already have been passed.
Even if all the pledges made at COP26 are honoured (let’s face it, they won’t), the likely outcome, according to the scientific analysis organisation Climate Action Tracker, is estimated to be a global average temperature rise of 2.4°C on pre-industrial levels. That is nearly a degree higher than the target, and it has potentially disastrous consequences.
Drawdown of excess CO2 (a good part of the carbon dioxide generated by industrialisation since the 1770s) would help reduce the likelihood of climate breakdown. This is most simply and easily done through the global adoption of regenerative agriculture. This was proposed by the French minister for agriculture, and ignored by everyone else, at COP21 in Paris (2015).
As we know, the impacts of climate breakdown are already being felt, so adaptation is needed now. We must adapt how we live. We need toadapt our homes to withstand the incidence of potentially prolonged intense heatwaves.
Air-conditioning is not the answer. It is energy intensive, currently consuming more electricity globally than the entire continent of Africa, but more importantly it pumps warm air out into the street and only makes intense heat worse.
There are, however, many models from the past that can be learned from, including ancient desert architecture and the palaces of the Indian sub-continent. They used thermal mass (thick walls) which absorbs heat slowly, and small windows and shading/trees to the south and west of the home. Whitewashing walls in spring and summer, like the houses in southern Spain, also helps by reflecting heat.
Adapting the entire housing stock of the UK would be enormously expensive and would take decades to do. Emeritus professor of architectural engineering at Heriot-Watt University, Sue Roaf, has suggested that a “cool corner” in every property – something like the climate equivalent of a World War Two Anderson shelter – may be the best we can do. It should be located on the side of the dwellingthat receives the least sunshine, insulated, with no carpet – preferably with a concrete floor – with the outside wall shaded with vegetation or awnings, and possibly piped cold water powered by solar panels.
Adaptation is like an insurance policy, it has to be in place before the event occurs or it is useless. Similarly, there is a cost to it, but the cost should be much, much less than the damage done.
Data Sources: Building homes for a heating planet – Financial Times article; Hothouse Earth, an inhabitant’s guide – Bill McGuire; Kiss the Ground – Netflix documentary; climateactiontracker.org; The Guardian; bbc.co.uk.