Society problems

Experts warn of becoming an ‘air-conditioned society’ as heatwaves heat up

But a year later, experts are warning that residents and policy makers need to think beyond air conditioning as the predominant solution to the risks, as climate change fuels heat waves that scientists say are becoming increasingly hot. hot and frequent.

“What worries me is that we’re talking about mechanical ventilation as an all-encompassing measure for all buildings, and it’s hugely problematic if that’s what we end up doing,” said Adam Rysanek, assistant professor of environmental systems at the University of British Columbia. School of Architecture.

“We’re going to totally get used to this air-conditioned society,” with windows closed all year round, said Rysanek, director of the building decisions research group at the university.

Alternative answers can be found in how buildings and cities are designed, laid out and even colored, as lighter surfaces reflect more of the sun’s energy, he said.

Two-thirds of those who died during last summer’s extreme heat were 70 or older, more than half lived alone and many suffered from chronic illnesses.

Ryansek said it was important to ensure these vulnerable people have access to air conditioning when temperatures get dangerously high.

But many sources of overheating in buildings stem from design and performance, and focusing on air conditioning ignores proven solutions, he said.

City planners and the construction industry should adopt lighter colored materials for buildings and even paved roads, he said, in addition to adding shading to building exteriors.

“At the height of the heat, much of the cooling demand comes from solar energy received outside the building. Let’s think about that.

Alex Boston, who served on the coroner’s review panel, said “underlying vulnerabilities” to dangerous heat are increasing in British Columbia and across the country, due to changing demographics and the way people live. houses and communities were built.

The number of people over 65 and people living alone are increasing, and both of these characteristics increase the risk in extreme heat, said Boston, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Renewable Cities Program.

“On top of that, it’s the lonely old people who have chronic illnesses, and on top of that, it’s the old people who suffer from some form of material or social deprivation,” he said.

“It could be the income, it could be the nature of their housing and the neighborhood they live in that (could) have inadequate tree cover. All these factors come together and we have to work on several of them simultaneously.

Failing to ensure that buildings are surrounded by trees to provide shade and evaporative cooling would be “shooting oneself in the foot in terms of energy load and cooling demand from building to building”. future,” Ryansek said, calling for “very robust.” vegetation and landscaping requirements to mitigate extreme heat.

Metro Vancouver aims to increase its urban canopy to 40% by 2050, compared to an average of 32% across the region, although a 2019 report noted that the existing canopy was shrinking due to urban development. The City of Vancouver’s goal, in particular, is to increase the canopy by 18-22%.

Boston said many measures to improve heat resistance have important co-benefits, such as restoring the canopies of urban trees.

Trees and vegetation help reduce flood risk, he said, and neighborhood parks serve as social hubs that can alleviate social isolation and foster a sense of community.

“We have complex problems, and if we’re just looking at an isolated component, we’re not maximizing the benefits of solving those problems in an integrated way,” Boston said.

For example, the Boston organization is working on a project on Vancouver’s North Shore to examine how social service providers could help single seniors manage secondary suites in their homes, an approach it says could alleviate housing unaffordability while mitigating the risks of living alone during extreme heat. .

“We need to work out several issues,” Boston said.

Meanwhile, a 2020 survey and report from the British Columbia Hydroelectric Authority found residential air conditioning use had more than tripled since 2001.

Many residents were adding an average of $200 to their summer bill by using air conditioning units inefficiently, with almost a third of survey respondents setting the temperature below 19 C. Popular portable units use 10 times more energy than a central air conditioning or heating system. pump, according to the report.

Globally, the International Energy Agency predicted in 2018 that energy demand from air conditioning would triple by 2050.

Continuing on this path would make it difficult for governments to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets to mitigate climate change, Rysanek said.

“If we exacerbate this problem… building development costs are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the climate impacts we’re going to face,” he said.

The B.C. government should encourage non-mechanical cooling options to boost their adoption in homes and commercial buildings, he said, pointing to measures such as natural ventilation, ceiling fans and cooling. by radiation embedded in floors or ceilings, which would cool all residents before turning. on an air conditioner.

“We should encourage our policy makers to realize that there is a vast world of alternatives. We may not have suppliers here in BC yet, but this is a great business opportunity,” Rysanek said.

Companies around the world have rolled out these cooling alternatives in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, and “we should try to invite them here so that we learn more about these things, as an audience, as consumers,” he said. he declared.

The coroner’s report calls on British Columbia to ensure the 2024 building code incorporates passive and active cooling requirements in new homes, as well as cooling standards for retrofitting existing homes, and to s ensure that “climate change lenses” are adopted in regional growth strategies and official community plans. .

He also recommends that the province consider how to issue cooling devices as medical equipment for those most at risk of dying during extreme heat.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the government would review the report and ‘take necessary action to prevent heat-related deaths in the future’.

It’s hard to predict how often British Columbia could see a repeat of last summer’s highest temperatures, but climate change is undoubtedly driving an increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme temperatures, a said Rachel White, assistant professor in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia

“When we have a normal heat wave in the future, it will be hotter than what we were used to,” she said.

A thermal dome refers to a region of high pressure that builds as lower temperatures get warmer, White explained.

These regions sometimes become “quasi-stationary”, depending on factors such as the strength of the winds circulating high in the atmosphere, she said.

As the heat dome blanketed British Columbia last year, its effects were amplified by already drought-stricken soil, lacking moisture that would evaporate and help cool the land during the long days of winter. summer with clear skies, she said.

“Earth’s atmosphere is not in balance,” White warned, “and the longer we continue to emit these greenhouse gases, the more warming we will see.”

“We have to act now if we don’t want it to be appalling in 40, 50 years.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 25, 2022.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press