How 40C heatwave vapourised millions of pounds from UK economy

People enjoy the hot weather on Brighton beach, during a heatwave in Brighton, Britain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra
People enjoy the hot weather on Brighton beach, UK during the heatwave on 19 July 2022. Photo: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

The UK recorded its highest temperature ever on Tuesday, exceeding 40C (104F), and prompting a refocus on climate change as the heatwave gripping Europe intensifies.

According to the Met Office a record temperature of 40.3C was recorded in Coningsby, in central England, with dozens of sites across the country experiencing temperatures in excess of the previous high of 38.7C recorded in 2019.

This followed the hottest night ever recorded, with temperatures failing to dip below 25C in some parts of the country.

Britain, which often struggles to maintain key transport services in extreme heat or snow, was put into a state of national emergency thanks to the record temperatures, while companies such as Network Rail issued advice not to travel unless essential.

Watch: UK heatwave: New record as temperature hits 40.3C

Professor Stephen Belcher, Met Office chief of science and technology, said exceeding 40C was "virtually impossible" in an undisrupted climate, but due to climate change "driven by greenhouse gases”, such extreme temperatures had become a reality.

He said if there continued to be high emissions "we could see temperatures like this every three years".

But how did the heatwave affect the UK economy?

The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that between 1980 and 2000, heatwaves in 32 countries across the bloc cost up to $71bn (£59bn) — this was even excluding the heatwaves of the past two decades.

Read more: UK inflation hits 9.4% as prices rise at fastest rate for 40 years

Meanwhile, Future Earth said multiple areas of the economic sector experience reduced worker productivity during heatwaves, especially agriculture and construction.

Globally, 2% of total working hours are projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace.

Lost productivity from heat stress at work, particularly in developing countries, is expected to be valued at $4.2tn per year by 2030, driving more inequality.

Transport

A number of trains and planes were cancelled and delayed this week as tracks and runways were affected by the heat.

Network Rail tweeted a number of pictures showing large bends and kinks in rail tracks, while warped road surfaces and melting tarmac pictures emerged from UK airports.

Thousands of travellers were affected, putting a strain on the transport sector, and the wider economy.

Services on the East Coast Main Line, which connects London and Edinburgh, were disrupted after a fire on the track near Sandy in Bedfordshire, and the route between King's Cross and Peterborough was also closed until Wednesday.

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UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said Britain must “drive up” railway standards in order to be able to cope in future.

He added that the Victorian-era infrastructure “wasn’t built to withstand this type of temperature”, and that it would take decades to upgrade existing lines to be more resilient.

Business

Businesses across Britain have been affected this week, with events cancelled, museums and schools closed, and electricity companies reporting mass outages.

Meanwhile, normally busy city centres stood quiet as people opted to stay indoors to avoid the heat, or alternatively sat in open spaces like parks and beaches to enjoy the sun.

Firefighters also tackled a number of wildfires across the capital which destroyed more than 40 properties.

According to a study by European economists and climate experts last year, it is estimated that heatwaves lowered overall annual GDP growth across Europe by an average of 0.5% in the past decade.

This is potentially more than twice the damage estimated from heatwaves in previous decades.

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Agriculture

The agricultural sector has also been hit by hotter temperatures over the last few weeks, pushing workers, crops and livestock past their physiological heat and drought tolerances

The heat has caused major disruptions to harvests, driving food prices higher.

Wildfires in Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece are destroying crops and threatening to reduce yields, while Italy is experiencing one of its worst droughts on record.

Elsewhere large grassland areas around London caught fire, which in turn sent smoke over major roads and nearby areas.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said on Tuesday that the unprecedented temperatures were "really highlighting issues with water security".

Watch: Trains delayed after fire melts signalling at level crossing during UK heatwave