Climate Emergency in the Capital: Impacts of Climate Change in London

By Theodore Robin, GLOBUS Correspondent

This summer, the United Kingdom experienced record-breaking temperatures, at times nearly reaching 40 degrees – heights nearly-never seen in Britain. In fact, the second-highest temperature ever, in the United Kingdom, was recorded in Cambridge at about 38°C last July [1]. As our climate continues to change, we must ask ourselves to what extent life in major cities will be affected: as the UK’s largest city, and its political and economic capital, the impact of a changing climate could not only affect Londoners but everyone living in Britain. As a consequence, assuming that global governance continues to fail to mitigate the causes of climate change, we must seek an understanding of its potential impacts, in order to adapt against them. In doing so, it’s important to remember that cities, especially those of the scale and significance of London, are vulnerable to climate change because of the density of their population and economic activity.

The consensus is that the weather in London will be impacted in several ways due to climate change.

In terms of temperature, the city will gradually become more uncomfortable – especially in the summer. It is expected to be warmer and drier, probably leading to more frequent droughts. Scientists predict that the weather in London by 2050 will be similar to Barcelona’s today [2]. In concrete terms, this means that temperatures are expected to increase by close to six degrees in the warmest months of the year. As London has not been designed to sustain life similar to Barcelona’s [3], a variety of consequences could occur: for example, up to two-third of flats in London could experience extreme overheating within the 2030s [4]. With an increase in temperature, the use of air conditioning is likely to rise [5] – there is a correlation between higher electricity use and warmer temperatures [6]. This will lead to more energy use and air pollution.

Climate change will also lead to rising sea levels. This could impact the Thames Valley, and as a result, putting London at risk of flooding – because the city is situated in a “low-elevation coastal zone[7]. Flooding will be especially noticeable during the Winter months, which are expected to be milder but rainier due to climate change, compounding the threat of flooding – especially as soils will have more trouble absorbing water because of droughts.

London is prone to three types of flooding because of its geography and topography: tidal flooding, fluvial flooding, surface water flooding. Under all of these categories, some of the city’s key infrastructure and network links will be threatened by climate change. A significant amount of the Underground could be affected with up to “half of the underground stations in central London[8] expected to be in danger, especially along the Northern and Central lines, from surface water flooding. In terms of fluvial flooding, much of London is protected thanks in large part to the Thames Barrier located in East London – despite this, though, many low-lying areas situated near the Thames face the risk of regular flooding in best-case scenarios: entire boroughs in South London, such as Southwark and Lambeth, face the risk of permanently being underwater [9]. Power stations, most of which are located on the coast, are susceptible to tidal flooding, introducing a threat to the city’s power supply. There is also the risk that banks of the river could collapse under increased pressure and flood vast low-lying areas.

As a consequence of the above, it’s relatively clear that many of Londoners’ daily activities risk being affected by a changing climate, such as going to work, to school or even being treated at a hospital – up to one-fifth of schools in London have a high-risk of flooding [10]. However, some action is already being undertaken to mitigate the impact of climate change.

The Mayor of London, in 2010, created an extensive report for a vision to transform and change some of London’s key infrastructure in light of these changes. The two main focal points are looking at greening the city and by reducing air pollution to have cleaner air [11]. Greening the city means adding more park spaces to increase the number of areas where water can be absorbed by soils, and thus increase flooding protection Greening also adds more cooling spaces, as trees and parks do not absorb as much heat as, for example, concrete does. To reduce air pollution, several key measures have been introduced regarding buses, low emissions zones and cycling. Since 2012, new buses have been introduced that do not run on diesel gas, while the number of cycle paths inside London has been increased – for example, with the introduction of a dedicated West-East ‘cycle superhighway’ along the banks of the Thames through the city centre. However, it remains to be seen how effective this solution will be with regards to flooding.

In conclusion, London bears the risk of being severely affected by a changing climate. However, its impact will probably be mitigated by the action of public authorities. It is unlikely that public authorities will let a city such as London be severely impacted by climate change: being of such importance to the United Kingdom, and the world, if London’s ability to do business is in anyway compromised, it would have a big ripple effect on the rest of the country. London accounts for nearly a quarter of the UK’s economy [12], and drives much of the economic growth of the country [13]. The city accounts for the highest public spending per head in England, a bit over 10% the UK average over the last 5 years [14]. Public authorities will do everything to avoid this. I think this can be best seen in the Mayor of London’s 2010 report, as it strongly highlighted that London is global city. As such, it is my belief that whatever the impact might be, as much investment as needed will be spent to save London.

Header image: Photo by Massimiliano Morosinotto on Unsplash

References

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49106092

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/10/global-heating-london-similar-climate-barcelona-2050

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23341698

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/30/london-tubes-schools-and-homes-face-climate-change-chaos

[5] https://modbs.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/16761/UK_energy_use_of_air_conditioning_reaches_alarming_levels.html

[6] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39132

[7] https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2018/06/climate-change-to-have-disastrous-impact-on-london-by-2050-report-warns/

[8]  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/30/london-tubes-schools-and-homes-face-climate-change-chaos

[9] https://www.mylondon.news/news/zone-1-news/london-flooding-how-rising-sea-16837090

[10] Ibid 6

[11] https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/Adaptation-oct11.pdf

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/20/london-uk-economy-decentralisation

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/sep/05/londons-19-economic-surge-underlines-divide-with-rest-of-england

[14] https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN04033

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