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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Safeguarding London’s future: older people and climate change

Speech by Jean Lambert MEP at the London Older People’s Strategies Group (LOPSG) fifth London People Assembly.

“Today’s meeting is important. Climate change is a fact of life – now, not just for our children or grandchildren, it is starting to affect us now.

Phil Thornhill has already spoken about what is happening. He is an amazing person and shows us all the power of the individual to change attitudes and make things happen. There is a general consensus that climate change is under way. The UK is the world’s 8th largest emitter of carbon dioxide: London produces 8% of the UK’s emissions and we are responsible for a lot more through products we import: when we complain about China’s growth in emissions we should just think about how much of that is from exports.

There may be some disagreement about the level of man-made contribution or we may hear it said that “well, it’s happened before” – perhaps, but not at this speed and not with a massive human population around to watch the affect. It is also not a neat, linear process that is gradually unfolding. Already, scientists are having to remodel their assumptions about the melting of huge ice masses as the process quickens. At the moment, the general view is that we have up to about ten years to possibly hold the temperature gain to less than 2¢ª increase on 1990 figures.

Last Thursday, I hosted a meeting addressed by Lance Simmens, one of Al Gore’s 1000 climate change “messengers”. One of the images he presented was of Glacier Park in the States: this could now be called “the Park formerly known as Glacier”, so dramatic was the disappearance over the last few decades. I’m sure that many of us in this room have noticed smaller changes. I was in my garden on Saturday – making use of renewable solar and wind energy to dry my washing (I had pegged it out on the line – something strangely banned on some estates in London) and found myself picking blackberries in early July. Every cookery book I have which gives seasonal recipes puts blackberries in the autumn section – well, not any more. It’s one small way in which our assumptions are changing.

Cities are of increasing importance in tackling climate change. By 2030, two thirds of the world’s population could be living in cities so it is important that cities are increasingly making links, for example through ICLEI which brings together some 650 cities worldwide. Delhi is one of the most recent members, Leicester and Bristol joined up some time ago and have the title of sustainable city. I am sure the Mayor will talk later about his C40 initiative and his recent visit to New York.

We are used to thinking in terms of older people and fuel poverty and the possibility of hypothermia – where the UK shamefully led the old EU 15 in terms of cold-related deaths but I want to talk a bit today, too, about the new challenge of heat.

We know that temperatures in the city tend to be higher than in surrounding rural areas and this is known as the “heat island” effect. This can be further affected if there is a lack of green zones – so London’s green spaces, including our gardens, are of vital importance. A recent research document for the European Commission pointed out that privatised spaces risk being low in green space and trees – you can probably think of your own examples, so this is an important issue for the planning process.

As temperatures rise and we see more sustained hot spells, this temperature difference can have several effects including:
i) an increase in the number of excess deaths, particularly of vulnerable people
ii) a reduction in the comfort or urban residents (with knock-on effects on their productiveness and the urban economy)
iii) an increased demand for air-conditioners, thus increasing energy requirement and further exacerbating climate change

You might remember that in the extremely hot summer of 2003, we saw the premature deaths of between 27,000 and 50,000 people, many in their own homes. The health services of some countries, not least France, were totally unprepared for such an extreme event – but we know that extreme weather events are a likely effect of climate change.

The NHS now has a leaflet explaining how to behave in such temperatures and countries including the UK, Germany and France have introduced a “heat watch” (in the UK this runs from June 1st to September) to help the public and various services to respond. Indeed, France was so shocked at the number of deaths during the August holiday that a national plan for heatwaves is activated every summer including a census of risk groups within every town that are provided with emergency equipment.

Who are the vulnerable groups when the temperature mounts?
According to the NHS, these include:
– older people
– people on certain medication (diuretics, for example)
– people with a serious chronic condition, particularly breathing or heart problems
– people with mobility problems

Others include the overweight ! Babies and young children are also considered vulnerable so, if you act as carers for grandchildren, you both need to stay out of the sun between 11.00 and 15.00 and follow the other advice.

Given that London is a world city, and looking around this room, I am sure we can learn a lot from each other about keeping cool. I am looking forward to the introduction of a siesta period. We need to learn the signs of heatstroke and how to react.

Public drinking fountains will become as important as public toilets.

Increasing temperatures are likely to have other effects. We already know that air quality can deteriorate when sunlight and high temperatures react with other pollutants such as nitrous oxide to produce low-level ozone. Those with respiratory problems are advised to stay in doors and outdoor activity should be restricted, as it can damage lung tissue. This is why it is important not to exceed EU air quality standards and why low-emission zones are to be welcomed.

There is also some concern that diseases currently restricted by temperature, as it were, will begin to extend – insects spread their range and temperatures no longer kill certain bacteria. My “climate change “guest said that diseases the USA thought it had seen gone are now reappearing, like West Nile virus, transmitted by mosquitoes: this also exists in some part of Europe. We are already seeing a small increase in tick-borne diseases within Europe. It is now useful to read the travel health advice before going on trips as things are starting to change.

Food poisoning also tends to go up in hot weather. We also know that London suffered four dry winters in a row, threatening major water shortages so the torrential rain has at least done some good and we haven’t experienced the 37” in 24 hours that fell in parts of India. No system can cope adequately with that. But we are likely to see more flash floods (and higher insurance bills, if you can get it) – hence the need for the new sewage pipe under the Thames and the need not to concrete over our gardens, as the Assembly scrutiny on the issue concluded.

So we need to think as carefully about how we plan for heat as we do for cold. How will we keep our care homes and our hospitals cool? How do we design our public spaces for hot weather – tarmac is no longer the answer. How can we do this without using more energy?

We know how to make our houses warmer for less money (I’m sure the Mayor will mention his insulation programme) and I know some local councils are doing a lot more than others to help people take up the cash already available through the Warm Homes and Decent Homes programmes – although it would help if their insulation standards aligned! London’s greenhouse gas emissions are higher from housing than they are from transport (if we leave out the expansion of the aviation industry and we really have to… leave it out, that is…).

Climate change is an issue for all of us. The situation is serious but not hopeless. We can turn this around but it is a major challenge because it requires co-operation on a global scale and action at every level from the individual onwards.

Each individual is important and there are positive gains to be had: saving money on your energy bills is positive; living somewhere cool in summer, warm in winter is positive; breathing clean air is positive and so on. Being energy efficient means you are now up-to-the-minute climate conscious and not a miserable, penny-pinching old….

Many of you will have family and friends in many different parts of the world and can help spread the message about how important it is to act. You can relay their information about what changes are happening in Somalia, India, Australia and make the links worldwide..

Group action is important when your local faith group takes action to increase energy efficiency, for example (the Churches has have a great booklet full of ideas); your local street can get together in its own CRAG to see how you can help each other reduce your carbon footprint; your local social clubs can source free energy-efficient light bulbs etc.

But individual and group action is also positive because it strengthens your position when you demand action from your local council; your energy supplier (who is supposed to help you increase your energy efficiency); your shopping centre; the huge office block at the end of the street that leaves their lights on all night etc. But, most importantly, your politicians.

We are the people who make the big decisions, about transport systems, energy systems, efficient levels for appliances, who decide the budgets for home insulation schemes etc. We are the people involved in shaping international agreements: you need to make it very clear to all of us that you will not vote for people who will not take this enormous challenge and responsibility seriously.

Please use your power. It is your challenge too.”

i Urban Planning and Construction Sectoral Support: Ecofys BV for the European Climate Change Programme Contract Ref: 070501/2006/432780/MAR/C2
ii ibid