LONDON — Temperatures topping 100 degrees are difficult to endure anywhere, but it’s particularly dangerous in Britain, where few homes are equipped with air conditioning.
There is little data on how many homes in England have air conditioning units installed, but the best estimates place it at under 5 percent of homes, according to a 2021 report from Britain’s Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy. Most of the air conditioning in use comes from portable units, with central air rarely found outside of some high-end apartments in London.
While a handful of days each summer are typically unpleasant, many Britons will say there simply aren’t enough difficult days and nights in the usually mild climate to make air conditioning a worthy investment. Many also view it as unnecessary and environmentally harmful, with a fan pointed at the bed considered to be just fine for a few nights per year.
And British homes were not designed with sweltering summers in mind.
“We are a heating-dominated country, not a cooling-dominated country,” said Tadj Oreszczyn, a professor of energy and environment at the University of College London Energy Institute.
He added: “We haven’t designed our homes historically to cope with overheating. We’ve designed them to keep ourselves warm.”
In some older buildings, the pipes that run through corridors that deliver hot water may not be properly insulated, he said, so running hot water for a shower could be causing heat to spread throughout the apartment. That’s fine when trying to overcome a frigid winter, but exacerbates problems during a heat wave.
Air conditioning is more common outside of the home. About half of the cooling demand in England comes from offices, followed by retail locations and hospitals, according to the government report.
But there has been a small increase in demand in recent years for cooling systems in residences, fueled in part by the increased use of home offices during the coronavirus pandemic, the report found. And officials are preparing for a future in which rising temperatures, driven by climate change, could create more demand for cooling systems, which use a lot of energy and could work against Britain’s goal of reducing its net production of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.
“Following the change in working practices resulting from Covid-19, it is expected that there will be a long-term trend of people working from home for some or all of the time, and this is likely to maintain an increased market for cooling systems,” the report said.