For the first time ever, the U.K. has exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s one of a number of records to be absolutely smashed as a record heat wave sweeps across Europe. And Europeans living with the rising heat are quickly realizing their homes aren’t equipped to deal with it.
While those across the continent will have to face current heat waves with the homes and technology they have, solutions are on the horizon to make future heat waves less dangerous. In a world where the climate crisis is making heat more intense and frequent, those solutions can’t come soon enough. Policymakers and startups alike will have to find common ground to ensure they’re deployed, though.
Air conditioning may seem like an obvious answer. But unlike the U.S. where air conditioning is ubiquitous, under 5% of homes in England have air conditioning installed, according to a 2021 report from Britain’s Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy. The U.K.’s already-burdened energy grids are feeling the strain, and adding more energy-intensive ACs could lead to blackouts (to say nothing of being costly to residents given the high energy prices).
Some startups are putting forward alternative solutions. Among them is improving energy efficiency so buildings require less cooling in the first place. EcoLocked, a Berlin-based startup developing biochar-based concrete admixes, even promises to do so while sequestering carbon.
"These heat waves are getting more and more frequent, and I can’t really see a way around that. The question is, ‘Where does the energy for the HVAC systems come from?’” Mario Vaupel, the co-founder and CEO, told Protocol.
EcoLocked’s process takes carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and stores it in concrete admix. The carbon also makes the concrete that it’s added to denser, improving insulation and decreasing the amount of energy required to heat or cool homes that are built with the material.
Incorporating biocarbon into concrete has been shown to reduce thermal conductivity by 30% to 40%, according to CTO and co-founder Micheil Gordon.
Heat pumps are another solution that has gained increasing investment and attention as a lower-carbon way to heat and cool homes. The technology already exists, but so do significant hurdles to getting more of them installed.
In Europe, a major bottleneck to widespread heat pump adoption is finding enough skilled laborers willing and able to install them, according to Mark Windeknecht, a former engineer-turned-investment manager at European climate tech VC World Fund. Most of the HVAC installers are independent small businesses with high demand for gas boilers, which are easy to install, compared to heat pumps, which are more complicated and require a more skilled workforce. Right now, there isn’t enough incentive for technicians to get trained up.
Training programs, coupled with improved incentives for homeowners to install them, could spur more widespread heat pump adoption. Doing so would offer a more energy-efficient cooling solution and ensure buildings are also heated using fossil fuel-free energy in the colder months. That has the potential to lower energy bills, improve energy security throughout Europe and lower carbon emissions.
The best solution, though, is often the simplest, Windeknecht said. He pointed to architectural solutions that have been around for generations, like passive house construction, a technique that improves homes’ energy efficiency through better weatherization, better windows, improved air flow and more, all while factoring in the regional climate.
“What we’ve done in the last 50 years is we’ve disconnected from our climate circumstances in cities. We’ve built from Sicily to Norway the same buildings not adapted to the local conditions,” he said.
Designing a passive home is more expensive than a traditional one, but you are paid back in utility bill savings over time, said Jon Hall, a Seattle-based principal focused on affordable housing and sustainable design at design firm GGLO. These solutions have also been around for years, with some passive strategies dating back to the 1970s energy crisis. Hall said there’s growing interest in these techniques “especially as city grids are being less reliable.”
These efforts could not only protect residents from overheating in their homes, but they could also reduce buildings’ carbon emissions. Buildings and construction are responsible for 36% of global energy use and a large chunk of greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report shows improving energy efficiency generally could reduce emissions anywhere from 40% to 70% by 2050. The building sector stands to make real gains while also protecting residents from the climate impacts baked into the system.
But fixing individual homes alone isn’t the only solution. Other decidedly low-tech solutions, especially one favored by a number of tech companies, could also help protect people from dangerous heat.
Planting more trees in places that would otherwise be occupied by heat-absorbing asphalt has the potential to reduce temperatures by 10% to 20%, according to Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative.
While companies can contribute to some of these fixes, Cohen told Protocol that the logistical challenges mean preparing for heat requires wartime mobilization efforts and widespread policy action. Governments need to mobilize labor, mobilize the economy, accelerate training and create the workforce needed to build and install technologies that already exist, like heat pumps.
“Everybody has the right to live in safe temperatures,” Cohen said. To get there, however, will require more than just air conditioning and individual solutions.