Published On: February 8, 2024

Emma Howard Boyd CBE, Chair of the London Climate Resilience Review, with George Leigh and Johanna Sutton

In January, the London Climate Resilience Review, an independent review commissioned by Mayor of London, published an interim report.  Emma Howard Boyd is chairing the Review and along with her team, George Leigh and Johanna Sutton, found that London is underprepared for increasingly extreme weather, but the opportunity to solve this is within reach. 

Like many cities around the world, London is underprepared for increasingly frequent and severe climate impacts, including flooding, storms, extreme heat and wildfires. This poses a growing and lethal risk to Londoners, but the city has strong foundations. Making the capital more resilient to extreme weather should be an unmissable opportunity but to grasp it, we need to act at pace.

Climate change is harming people’s health, getting in the way of their work, and drawing down resources needed for other priorities. At a Westminster Energy Forum event in January, speakers talked about how armed forces around the world would increasingly have to divert troops from international engagements to manage domestic climate impacts, like floods and wildfires. Our Review has been told how weather events are already causing considerable challenges to business continuity for key London organisations including the Metropolitan Police, the NHS, and Transport for London.

In September we suggested that now London has already experienced 40°C it would be sensible to prepare for 45°C among other possible events. In October 2023, Paris ran an exercise that simulated a 10-day 50°C heatwave event in two districts of the city. A similar heat exercise in London would help clarify roles, responsibilities, and primacy of command in the event of multiple failures of infrastructure, for instance in transport, power, and water. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has also recommendedthat the Government oversees a programme of ‘exercises’ to plan for major regional extreme weather events with multiple cascading effects.”

The Mayor has accepted our recommendation to conduct a specific exercise to test London’s preparedness for a severe heat episode and identify potential cascading and concurrent risks. Further, we have said that bodies in London need to make severe weather a consideration for all business-as-usual resilience exercises.

A new era

As temperatures in Europe rise, we are entering a new era, but the UK is culturally and institutionally more familiar with preparing for cold winters than for treating hot weather as a hazard. Cold snaps will continue to pose huge risks, but our preparations and preventative measures are better established. The Adverse Weather and Health Plan concerns arrangements for planning and response in the health system during adverse weather, including heatwaves, but there is no national strategy for adapting the UK to the higher temperatures and extreme heat we expect in the coming years.

Last month the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said: “The “silent killer” of heatwaves could claim up to 10,000 lives annually in the UK without concerted action, with the most vulnerable at greatest risk. Physical and mental health can be severely impacted: the Committee heard that suicide risk is twice as high in the UK when the temperature was 32°C rather than 22°C.”

People in the UK will remember last year’s European heatwaves with mythological names like “Cerberus” and “Charon” causing devastating wildfires in Italy and Greece but might not be aware of the growing grassfire threat at London’s rural/urban interface, as shown at Wanstead Flats in 2018 and Wennington in July 2022. Increasing general awareness about what to do in the event of predictable shocks is vital, especially on those areas most at risk

The EAC said the Met Office should trial naming heatwaves to boost public recognition of the threat to health and wellbeing in the same way as named storms. Celeste Saulo, the new head of the World Meteorological Organization recently said strengthening early warning systems for climate events like floods, heatwaves and tropical storms, is a key priority for her administration. Making timely and lifesaving information available to all will help reduce the risk of natural disasters aggravated by climate change.

The whole world is underprepared for extreme weather

In 2023, temperature records toppled, while floods, droughts and heatwaves caused devastation. The UN Environment Programme Adaptation Gap Report 2023 found that progress on climate adaptation is slowing when it should be accelerating to catch up with rising climate impacts.

Professional services firm AON’s 2024 Climate and Catastrophe Insight report said that global economic losses from natural catastrophes (including earthquakes as well as climate impacts) reached $380 billion in 2023. The report said global insurance losses during the year were 31% higher than the 21st-century average, exceeding $100 billion for the fourth year in a row.

This is not only a matter of avoided losses.  Action on adaptation and resilience can provide returns on investment between 2:1 and 10:1, and sometimes more. London has a world-leading insurance market, pioneering scientific institutions, a thriving technology sector, international banking and around 19% of the UK’s private sector businesses. Dr Rhian-Mari Thomas OBE, Chief Executive Officer of the Green Finance Institute, said: “Responding to events exacerbated by the climate crisis, such as flooding and drought, is costly and resource intensive. Mitigating these inevitable risks, by investing in adaptation and climate resilience, is the effective way to reduce the growing impact on Londoners both practically and economically.”

The final report

Having published our interim report, we are now completing work on the final Review which will be published later in 2024. Chairing the Review has allowed me to meet communities and organisations including Borough Councils, the Greater London Authority, the London Fire Brigade, UK Government, NGOs, the financial services sector, sports and cultural institutions as well as representatives of vulnerable groups. What strikes me about how our Review is different, is that, in the years I have been working on climate change, reports used to focus on projected warming scenarios and what they mean we can expect. We are looking at those projections too, but our starting point is the testimony of people who live and work in London. The message we’re hearing is crystal clear: climate impacts are already causing damage and disruption to lives and livelihoods in London.

But the question remains, will we act in time?

If you would like to give us your feedback on our findings and recommendations, please contact us at [email protected]


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