How urban planning policies can mitigate climate risks

Europe experienced its second warmest June on record in 2022, with temperatures hovering around 1.6 C above average. It is clear that extreme heat, among other climate impacts, is a reality that we will face, and therefore should prompt us all to force fundamental change upon ourselves.

Many impacts of climate change are irreversible, with around 1.2 degrees of global warming “locked in” due to historical emissions. However, urgent and comprehensive adaptations to current behavior will support long-term positive change. With regard to sectoral activity, in particular urban planning and construction, there are two main problems to be solved: the reduction of GHG emissions and adaptation to rising temperatures.

Urban planning solutions are already in play, ranging from sun protection to increasing levels of greenery in front of buildings. But key drivers need to be prioritized to directly address the issues facing the sector:

Policy and regulation

The sustainable trajectory of the built environment depends on effective policy and regulatory measures. As this summer’s intense heat demonstrated, UK infrastructure is currently not equipped to withstand extreme temperatures. Adapting and retrofitting buildings, homes and infrastructure to withstand warmer temperatures and extreme weather events will require a coordinated national effort. Political intervention and incentives are not unprecedented, however. Feed-in tariffs have already played an important role in encouraging the use of renewable energy and other government programs can support the continued adoption of sustainable measures.

Insufficient and outdated policy can also have resounding consequences. In 2019, the Business and Industrial Strategy Department (BEIS) reported that around 20% of London homes will need air conditioning by 2035, rising to 75% by 2050. But most air conditioning systems are both energy and carbon intensive. Without a strategic policy offering sustainable cooling measures, we risk experiencing peaks in energy demand during the summer months.

Modernization addiction

The UK’s net zero target for 2050 is also putting pressure on policy makers and building owners. Given that 80% of the UK’s current building stock is expected to still exist in 2050, refurbishing existing buildings will be just as integral, if not more so, than optimizing new build.

However, adapting the existing built environment to achieve net zero goals will be particularly challenging. A 2021 report by the UK Environmental Audit Committee concluded that, as things stand, the UK would take 700 years to decarbonise residential heat.

The extreme heat of this summer made it clear: it is imperative to act to mitigate the effects of climate change on the real estate sector. We must act accordingly to facilitate the transition to a green built environment.

Agathe Kuhn is Associate Director of Policy and Legislation at Longevity partners.