Many countries around the world have been in lockdown due to COVID-19, with many people still working and studying at home. It is now summer, and many countries are bracing themselves for the coming heatwave: Without air conditioned offices and classrooms to take advantage of, there are things both individuals and cities can do to mitigate the impacts of heat during the pandemic.
UNU-EHS expert Simone Sandholz has published op-eds, in IISD SDG Knowledge Hub (in English) and in Excelsior (in Spanish), with the latter focusing specifically on Mexico’s case.
Although the COVID-19 outbreak began in mid-winter in the northern hemisphere, it is clear that it will stay through the summer.
Recent summers have been among the hottest on record, and the trend is likely to continue in 2020. Heat waves are becoming more extreme and lasting longer, affecting human health. According to the National Meteorological Service of Mexico, 2019 was the second warmest year in the country’s history, registering 1.5 degrees above the historical average, and this year we can expect something similar. Also, since the end of 2019, the Pan American Health Organization asked governments to prepare for the deadly heat waves expected in 2020.
In addition to the large number of people in Mexico working outdoors, whether in the fields, in the streets or in markets, this summer we will most likely have more people than ever working from homes without air conditioning. Weekend travel and taking summer vacations outside of the hot cities will be unlikely. However, if city dwellers run out of options for cooling off, this will be an additional burden on health systems that are already overworked, as people may suffer heat-related health problems. We need to plan now and look at measures we can implement to avoid this.
Cities that have already invested in green or blue infrastructure, such as open green spaces and ponds, will have an advantage. These spaces not only protect against climate impacts such as floods, but are free and accessible places to spend hot summer days. It is not too late to create spaces such as small community parks and gardens, which can also reduce the risk of other areas becoming overcrowded. Parking lots, for example, have great potential for a quick, temporary and very efficient conversion. There are also individual measures that people can take, such as green roofs and walls, which can help to cool the houses.
While air conditioning units also work to cool apartments, we must keep in mind that this pandemic is a temporary challenge, and climate change is a more pressing long-term challenge. Air conditioning units contribute even more to global warming because of their high energy use and because the heat expelled to the surrounding area. In this case, green-blue infrastructure are win-win solutions not only for climate change adaptation and mitigation, but also for recreation, health and human well-being.
Finally, some of the promising developments we have seen with COVID-19 can also help combat problems related to heatwaves. In recent weeks, many initiatives have been launched where younger neighbours go shopping for older citizens, so they don’t need to be exposed to COVID-19. This provides a huge opportunity to deal with heatwaves as well, which is a problem that also tends to put more pressure on older people. In addition, large cities such as Mexico City are expanding cycling infrastructure, which not only helps us reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also allows people to go outdoors and exercise without congregating in popular spaces such as parks or beaches.
COVID-19 will profoundly change the way Mexico experiences summers, but if we prepare now we can still enjoy the warmer temperatures.