To most people in the US, Europe’s relative lack of air conditioning would probably seem surprising — but that’s hardly the issue here. As record-breaking heatwaves are becoming the norm across Europe, it’s becoming increasingly clear that most European cities just aren’t built to deal with this kind of temperature.
The climate crisis our planet is going through is making heatwaves much more common, and the entire world is feeling the effects. Cities in particular are suffering due to the high density of citizens and the urban heat island effect. This effect, largely caused by the heat absorption of pavement and buildings, as well as reduced vegetation cover, can make cities several degrees hotter than their immediate surroundings, while at the same time altering wind and rain patterns.
Fueled by global warming and exacerbated by this urban heat island effect, heatwaves will be devastating — especially as European cities are unprepared to deal with it.
Take cities in northern Europe, for instance. The common architecture includes large windows built to let as much light in as possible. Shutters are a rare occurrence, and even sun shades aren’t that common. Air conditioning is largely reserved for commercial spaces and, generally, buildings are designed to keep heat in — not let it out.
In the UK, old houses are still a major issue. Favored by a thriving 19th century and a virtual lack of earthquakes, Britain can get by with extremely old houses. The country still has more than 5 million houses built before 1900, and around 10 million more built before the 1950s (out of a total of 25 million). The vast majority of these houses have no real insulation or ventilation to speak of and can get very hot during the summer: 1 in 5 houses overheat during the summer, according to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee.
While this is an issue in many parts of Europe (as several countries have their fair share of old houses) it’s particularly prevalent in the UK, due to its old infrastructure. It’s not just houses, either. Kathryn Brown, the head of Adaptation at the Committee on Climate Change in the UK, recently stated that temperatures in some British hospitals can exceed 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) when the outside temperature is only 22 degrees (70 Fahrenheit).
In Germany, high temperatures are typically associated with droughts or, at the very least, low water levels. As the country faced sweltering heat last week, ships have been stranded as the Danube had unusually low water levels. Elsewhere, cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona also have to deal with high humidity, which makes the heat even harder to bear.
The prevalence of tenements and other multi-occupancy buildings in Europe, which are common in most large cities is also a problem. These buildings gather more heat than detached houses, although in truth, it’s in this type of building that air conditioning is becoming more common.
The problem is accentuated by the fact that European cities tend to have denser development than their American counterparts. Public transportation, much more common in Europe than the US, can also be much more taxing in extreme heat. Ironically, some of the things which make European cities more ecofriendly (like relative lack of air conditioning and less driving) make them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The demographics of European cities are also making them more vulnerable: urban populations are getting older, which will make the society more exposed and vulnerable to extreme weather events.
The largest struggle is avoiding heatstroke and other serious health issues. Climate researcher Peter Innes at the University of Reading said the increased frequency of heatwaves closely matches calculations about man-made global warming, and these heatwaves can kill tens of thousands of people every year.
“It has been estimated that about 35,000 people died as a result of the European heatwave in 2003, so this is not a trivial issue,” said Innes.
The situation is so severe that the IPCC considers heatwaves the most important and dangerous hazard related to climate change. Several groups are particularly at risk, including the elderly, young, the individuals with preexisting chronic conditions, communities with weak socioeconomic status, people with mental disorders and isolated individuals.
“Healthy people in general are okay in hot weather as long as they take some precautions, but when it starts getting to about 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) even healthy people are at risk,” said Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, which is part of the London School of Economics.
Virtually all European cities will be more vulnerable to extreme heat in the coming decades, although some are more vulnerable than others.
“Cities that are used to more temperate climates, like London, are finding it very difficult to cope,” Ward said.
“Places which experience cold winters tend to worry more about insulation … but of course some of the measures you design to keep heat in during the winter can prevent heat escaping in the summer, making it even more of a problem,” he added.
But the cities are adapting, and they are learning from previous experiences.
Paris implemented a laudable and comprehensive emergency plan to deal with extreme heat events. Part of a larger scheme to boost the country’s overall climate resilience, the Paris heatwave plan can make a big difference and quite possibly save lives. For starters, kindergartens all get temporary air conditioners, while parents of students are given “heatwave kits”. There’s also Chalex, the registry where you can self-declare yourself as vulnerable to high temperatures — particularly recommended for the elderly or people with breathing problems. Those registered (through a free phone call) get a phone check-up and cooling advice, as well as professional medical help dispatched to their home if they need it.
Paris, like many other cities, is also installing more public fountains and misting machines, to help passerby’s cope with the scorching heat. Cities are also deploying health and hydration facilities.
But these are all only emergency solutions. If we want to really look for solutions, we’ll have to develop long-term plans. Planting more trees is always a good idea: they provide shade, filter the air, and reduce temperatures through transpiration. Creating more parks is an important way to provide some much-needed relief. Vertical gardens and green roofs are more innovative ways to achieve the same objective, although many of Europe’s older buildings will struggle to accommodate them.
Lastly, if European cities want to truly adapt to heatwaves, they need to change the way they work around heatwaves — and what better way to do that than learning from cities which have already done that?
Learning from the south
While heatwaves have only recently become a major problem in central, northern, and western Europe, southern Europe has been dealing with them for a long time — and quite successfully.
If you want to understand how southern cities are coping, it’s enough to ask for a beer. In most parts of the world, a beer would be somewhere between 0.33 and 0.5 liters, but in places like Spain or Portugal, it’s usually 0.25 or 0.2 liters. It’s not that they don’t like their beer — instead, they know that most often, the beer would get warm before you get a chance to drink it. Importantly, the preferred alcoholic drinks are also light — like Sangria or light beers — because alcohol is not your friend during hot times. This acceptance and adaptation is a core concept of dealing with heatwaves, and it carries on to things far less trivial than a beer.
Avoiding going outdoors during midday is a core philosophy of southern Europe. Whether it’s Greece, Spain, or Italy, shops often close after lunchtime, and the siesta is largely owed to the fact that it’s just too hot to go outside. Lunch is often just a refreshing snack and the lavish dinner is generally served well after sunset. When the sun is at its strongest, between 12 and 4 PM, you should only be walking in the sun if you absolutely need it.
Staying in the shade is also extremely important, which goes hand in hand with planting more trees and developing park or garden areas.
Lastly, southern European architecture is also ideal for dealing with heatwaves. From the iconic white buildings common on the Greek and Italian coasts to the small, winding Spanish streets that act like cool corridors of shade, Mediterranean architecture is excellent at dealing with the heat. While not all these elements could be replicated, there are still plenty of lessons cities to the north will want to learn
When it comes to urban heatwaves, Europe has its work cut out. In between old infrastructure, crowded cities, and scorching heat islands, the Old Continent will no doubt struggle to adapt to the now-regular heatwaves — yet it will have to do so nonetheless. The climate crisis will spare no one, and European cities have the resources and capacity to prepare and adapt for the impending challenges. Taking measures like adding more air conditioning and cars will only add to the problem in the long run. Europe (like the rest of the planet) needs sustainable solutions. Being aware of the problem is the first step. Getting everyone on board for action is the next one — and getting things done is the end game.
Even if we do everything right, climate change won’t stop all of a sudden. It will continue for decades, even in the most optimistic scenarios. That part is out of our hands already, but reducing the damage and adapting to it is not. It’s up to us to find solutions both for the short and the long run — or pay the price.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.