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A Web of Challenges: Europe Encounters Climate Change Threats

Some European countries have been faced with unconventional climate threats, manifested in the unusual sheets of rain, cycles of floods, drought spells, and forest fires that differed in their intensity, range, and sudden occurrence in some areas. These changes have been interpreted as being a product of the climatic changes given the continued rise in the average European air temperature. 

Data indicates that between 2006 and 2015, the average air temperature in Europe increased by 1.53  °C compared to the period 1850-1900. According to the August 2019 Climate Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this rise is greater than the equivalent global average temperature change throughout history.

According to the IPCC’s latest report of 2021, the past five years were the hottest on record since 1850, and the rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled compared to the period 1901-1971. This brought about a change in the global and social ecosystem and coasts have been exposed to risks of inundation, erosion, and flooding due to sea level rise. These impacts have been manifested in European countries as follows:

  • Heavy rainfall: Germany and Belgium were affected by the high rainfall that started on 13 July and resulted in landslides, destruction of tens of thousands of homes, washing away of cars due to submerging of streets, and isolation of entire areas that were left without electricity. In Belgium, electricity supply to 37,000 homes was cut off. As of 20 July, excessive rainfall caused deaths of about 165 people in Germany and 31 in Belgium. An increase in the number of deaths, missing persons, and the unreached is expected due to flash floods accompanying heavy rainfall.
  • Flash floods: Heavy rains that kept dropping for nearly two months in some areas of Western Europe caused devastating floods in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom, destroying homes and infrastructure, paralyzing transportation, and inflicting numerous casualties over the period 14-15 July 2021. On 23 July, the Russian city of Sochi was hit by flash floods that disrupted power supplies in 6 regions. Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) in Krasnodar stated that 52.6 mm of rain fell in 1 hour in Sochi. Similarly, on 22 July, areas on the Black Sea in Turkey were affected by floods. This is particularly true of Arhavi and Morgul districts and in Artvin and Rize provinces.
  • High temperatures: A heat wave blew Northern European countries where some cities in southern Finland recorded the country’s longest heat wave since 1961, which lasted for 27 consecutive days (during June and July) with temperature reaching over 25  °C. In the Gulf of Finland, located in the Baltic Sea, temperature reached 26.6  °C, the highest in 20-year history.
  • Devastating wildfires: July was the world’s worst month for wildfires since 2003 when satellite records began. Fires extended to include some countries on the Mediterranean coast such as Turkey where about 14 active bushfires broke out across 1,100 different regions. In Italy, wildfires are intensifying in areas of Sardinia, causing evacuation of hundreds of citizens. The size of ​​charred areas in Italy increased in mid-June from zero to about 80,000 hectares (over 190,000 acres), i.e. nearly four times the average in the period 2008-2020, to become Italy’s second worst fire season, particularly in the south. This prompted the Italian government to seek external assistance under the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism. Likewise, Greece has been facing a deadly wave of wildfires that got out of control. More than 150 fires have been reported, and certain areas, facing the hottest heat waves in 30 years, have been on hair-trigger alert. The temperature rising to 45 °C, resulted in continued fires spreading to the Greek island of Evia, which saw fleeing of many citizens and the evacuation of over 2,000 people.

Growing Action

In response to the devastating repercussions of the climatic changes, affected European countries adopted a number of strategies, capitalizing on their own capacities. However, with the situation spiraling out of control, some countries, including primarily Greece and Cyprus, requested foreign assistance from other European countries under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to overcome the difficult situation. Several European countries, including Italy, Germany, and France, sent aid and firefighters to Sweden to respond to fires. Janez Lenarcic, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, thanked Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Slovenia, and the Netherlands for their quick response in supporting countries affected by the forest fires.

The European Commission (EC) announced a number of measures and strategies to promote climate cooperation and reduce carbon emissions that cause global warming to increase. The latest of these steps was introduced on 29 July 2021 where a set of technical guidelines on climate resilience for infrastructure projects over the period 2021-2027 were published, to help mainstream climate considerations in future investment and development of infrastructure projects, to be consistent with the European Union’s climate-related goals, helping implement the European Green Deal. This step was preceded by other steps including:

  • Reducing emissions: On 14 July, the EC introduced a set of measures that contribute to bringing the US’s climate, transport, and energy policies into line with their goal of reducing emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 relative to 1990 levels. These measures come as part of the Green Deal initiatives launched in December 2019, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while ensuring sustainable development of the European economy. To that end, the EU Recovery plan from Covid-19 has been linked to the green transition plan, placing an emphasis on the implementation of the EU’s goal of becoming climate-neutral (i.e. reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a minimum and offsetting the remaining emissions through adopting climate protection measures).
  • Europe’s climate law: The European Council and European Parliament passed the first reading of the European Climate Law on 24 June 2021, after coming into a temporary political agreement on it on 21 April 2021. The law requires the EU to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 relative to 1990 levels and sets a limit of 225 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent as the amount of emissions removals that can be counted toward the 2030 target. According to the law, a European Scientific Advisory Council on Climate Change will be established, and is projected to provide scientific advice and reports on European climate-related measures, targets, greenhouse gases’ cap and allowances, and ensure their compliance with the EU’s international commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • Climatic adaptation: In February 2020, the EC launched an Adaptation Strategy to respond to the growing repercussions of climate change. The strategy comes as part of the European Green Deal and aims at ensuring that all EU policies and measures contribute to increasing Europe’s resilience to the impacts of climate change, supporting partners of the private sector and national, regional, and local authorities to adapt to climate change, and increasing the EU’s international-level resilience and preparedness by enhancing international funding and promoting participation and global interoperability on climate adaptation.
  • EU Emissions Trading System (ETS): In 2005, the EU established the first and largest carbon market for trading emissions. The EU ETS targets reducing emissions from about 10,000 installations in the energy and manufacturing sectors, as well as airlines operating in European countries. The EU ETS is established upon “cap and trade” principle, meaning a maximum limit is set for the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by installations covered by the system. The cap is reduced gradually on an annual basis. Within this cap, emission allowances are bought and sold between countries. At the end of each year, each installation must surrender enough allowances to cover all of its past emissions, otherwise fines will be imposed. 

In return, if an entity reduces its emissions, it can receive allowances, and keep spare allowances to the next year or sell its remaining shares to another facility. In this context, the EU worked to link the ETS with compatible carbon market systems to expand the scope of climate action with the aim of reducing emissions. For instance, in 2017, the EU and Switzerland signed an agreement to link their emissions trading systems. The agreement was concluded in January 2020 but came into effect in September. This agreement proved effective as it resulted in reducing emissions of covered installations by about 35 percent between 2005 and 2019.

  • Innovation Fund: The Innovation Fund was launched as a mechanism to finance the EU’s economic commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, to be climate-neutral. The Fund focuses on innovative technologies and big flagship projects that contribute to reducing emissions and supports projects that rely on innovative low-carbon mechanisms. Small enterprises with a total capital cost of less than €7.5 million can benefit from the fund.
  • Declaration of a climate and environmental emergency: Given the continued temperature rise, the European Parliament approved, on 28 November 2019, a resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency in Europe and the world. The draft resolution was approved by 429 out of 673 voting members, while 225 members opposed the draft and 19 abstained from voting. As such, legislators requested the EC to reconcile all the proposals put forward regarding legislation and budget – concurrently with the commitment to limit global warming to less than 1.5 °C – and called for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030.
  • International agreements: The EU and its member states were part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), agreed on in 1992, aiming at preventing human interference in the global climate system. Further, the EU adopted the Paris Climate Agreement, a product of the 21th session of the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2015 that entered into effect on 4 November 2016, as the first legally binding global agreement to respond to climate change, supporting sustainable low-carbon stability. 

Moreover, the EU ratified the legally binding Kyoto Protocol geared towards reducing global greenhouse emissions. Under the Protocol, two commitment periods were agreed on: the first from 2008-2012 where industrialized countries were obligated to reduce emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels and the second from 2013-2020 in which parties to the Protocol agreed to take on a commitment to reduce emissions by at least 18 percent below 1990 levels.

  • COP26 Summit: In continuation of international efforts to confront climate change, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) is scheduled to be held in Glasgow from 1-12 November 2021, after it was adjourned due to Covid-19 pandemic. The UN Climate Change Conference is an annual summit comprising 197 countries to address climate change and its repercussions. 

New decisions are expected to be taken by the summit to contain the growing effects of climate change to stop global warming, particularly after failure of the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy in Naples, Italy, on 22 July 2021, to make any progress in addressing climate change following refrainment of some members to make decisive future commitments.

Interconnected Challenges

These efforts came in response to the repercussions of climate change facing the EU, with the aim of increasing its adaptive capacity and resilience and ensuring achieving its climate goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050, through mechanisms built around multilateral cooperation. However, the EU’s ability to address non-traditional risks has not yet reached the desired level due to several challenges, chief among them are:

  • The ineffective delayed response to early warning systems and lack of preparedness in emergency situations to prevent material and human losses. The Netherlands, however, was able to deal with the heavy rains and help citizens affected by the rainy season. Comparing the Netherlands with other European countries may be unfair as rains in the Netherlands were not as heavy as in Germany or Belgium, but the point is that it managed to control the situation with no human losses.
  • As for the green transformation of national economies as a recovery mechanism of Covid-19, there is still the challenge of matchmaking between the economic priorities of these countries and the green transformation targets that will require a change in the current policies and procedures at all levels, given the need to increase reliance on environment-friendly sources to reduce carbon emissions and the lack of consensus on an energy source that would achieve the EU’s decarburization goal by 2050.
  • While European countries expressed a genuine desire to adhere to the announced climate-related policies and strategies, there is no monitoring or enforcement mechanism that would penalize countries that don’t honor the agreements. Moreover, some agreements aren’t specific when it comes to emission cap and allowances.
  • There is also the challenge of how to convince the political forces and the European public opinion of the European Green Deal to be a vital part of it by changing their lifestyle without their economic and social conditions being affected and how to respond to the emergence of opposing forces that resist the Deal and may be employ it politically against the background of the immigration crisis that strengthened the populist movements’ attainment of power. 

The reason why we raise this now is that some reforms might prove to be a new burden on vulnerable groups. One can’t forget that the green taxation that brought about a rise in prices of motor fuel was the direct reason of France’s Yellow Vests Protests of November 2018.

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