EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

From deadly wildfires to catastrophic floods, Europe is seeing the impact of the climate crisis with episodes of extreme weather only likely to increase in the coming years as average temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard
Tourists watch from the roadside as dense smoke darkens the sky from reignited forest fires north of Grimaud, in the department of Var, southern France on August 18, 2021. - (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

Europe endured record extreme weather in 2021, from the hottest day and the warmest summer to deadly wildfires and
flooding, the European Union’s climate monitoring service reported Friday.

While Earth’s surface was nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe saw an average increase of more than two degrees, a threshold beyond which dangerous extreme weather events become
more likely and intense, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said.

The warmest summer on record featured a heatwave along the Mediterranean rim lasting weeks and the hottest day ever registered in Europe, a blistering 48.8C (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in Italy’s Sicily.

In Greece, high temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires described by the prime minister as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

Forests and homes across more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,000 square miles) were burned to the ground.

Front loaders work to move branches and uprooted trees near a bridge over the Ahr river in Insul, Ahrweiler district, western Germany, on July 28, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. – At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann / AFP)

A slow-moving, low-pressure system over Germany, meanwhile, broke the record in mid-July for the most rain dumped in a single day.

The downpour was nourished by another unprecedented weather extreme, surface water temperatures over part of the Baltic Sea more than 5C above average.

Flooding in Germany and Belgium caused by the heavy rain — made far more likely by climate change, according to peer-reviewed studies — killed scores and caused billions of euros in damage.

As the climate continues to warm, flooding on this scale will become more frequent, the EU climate monitor has warned.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”     

A picture taken on July 15, 2021 shows damaged cars on a flooded street in the Belgian city of Verviers, after heavy rains and floods lashed western Europe, killing at least two people in Belgium. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

‘Running out of time’

The annual report, in its fifth edition, also detailed weather extremes in the Arctic, which has warmed 3C above the 19th-century benchmark — nearly three times the global average.

Carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires, mostly in eastern Siberia, topped 16 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon pollution of Bolivia.

Greenland’s ice sheet — which along with the West Antarctic ice sheet has become the main driver of sea level rise — shed some 400 billion tonnes in mass in 2021.

The pace at which the world’s ice sheets are disintegrating has accelerated more than three-fold in the last 30 years.

“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned us we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, referring to the UN’s science advisory panel.

“This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate-related extreme events are already occurring.”

Member comments

  1. The global run-up in temperature prior to the Maunder Minimum before the industrial revolution, during the middle ages was greater than the current run-up. Look to sunspots, not CO2.

  2. The IPCC issues analyses and interpretations. They generally differ, with the analyses noting that there aren’t more extreme events, and those that happen aren’t more severe, and the likely increase in temp is below 2C.

    The interpretations generally seek to find something the analyses which speak of RCP 8.5, rather than the path we’re likely on, which is RCP 4.5. Then presenting the extremely unlikely RCP 8.5 projections as if they were the considered result of the analysis.

    That is, they’re lying again.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Why the new A69 autoroute in south-west France is causing such a row

Tensions over the ongoing construction of a new motorway connecting two towns in the south-west of France have shown no sign of abating in recent months.

Why the new A69 autoroute in south-west France is causing such a row

Where is this new motorway?

Work on the A69, a 53km motorway connecting the south-western town of Castres and the city of Toulouse, has already begun. 

The two places are just 77km apart, but at present driving along the winding, single-lane road takes around 1 hour 20 minutes.

The proposed A69 motorway, if completed, will cut between 15 and 35 minutes from the journey time.

Why is it being built?

The government line on the building of new roads – and the A69 specifically – is that they are essential to improving lives in areas of rural France by better connecting them to the rest of the country.

“We must listen to the demands of the population on the questions of improving access,” said Environment Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher in an interview on RMC earlier this year. “Lots of people in rural territories think we do not take care of them. They do not have the same access to public services, they cannot live as easily as people who live in Paris for example,” she said. 

Local officials and business leaders in the region have also argued that the construction is necessary and will boost economic growth. 

The A69 construction has faced more than 10 legal challenges, all of which have been struck down. The government says that given the construction has been approved by MPs democratically elected by the people, it should continue to go ahead despite criticism. It also argues that given construction has already begun, it doesn’t make sense to stop. 

It says it will plant new trees to offset the carbon emissions and deforestation caused by the construction of the road.

Why are some people against it?

The principal opponents to the A69 construction are environmentalists, some of whom have staged huge protests this year. 

The most prominent protest figure is Thomas Brail, an activist who spent nearly a month on hunger strike on top of a tree outside the Environment Ministry, before being transferred to hospital over the weekend. 

French activists Thomas Brail had been staying in a tree outside the Environment Ministry. He was on hunger strike to show his opposition to the A69 project.

French activists Thomas Brail had been staying in a tree outside the Environment Ministry. He was on hunger strike to show his opposition to the A69 project. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Some 200 trees will need to be cut down to make space for the new road and 316 hectares of will be decimated if the project is completed.

There is already a train line connecting Toulouse and Castres which emits three times less CO2 than the existing road route. “This would be 25 times less emitting if the train line, which is currently runs of diesel, was electrified,” according to an open letter published by 200 scientists opposed to the A69 over the weekend. 

“This project contradicts our national commitments to the fight against climate change and to our net zero targets on ‘artificialization’ and biodiversity loss,” they wrote. 

The scientists also blasted the government’s proposed carbon offsetting scheme, noting that young trees cannot absorb the same level of carbon as old ones. 

Others are opposed to the project for non-environmental reasons, including residents of Teulat – a town of 530 residents set to be cut in half by the new motorway. The mayor of Teulat has been fighting against the project for the past decade and told RMC: “This is a useless project imposed on our population. Our citizens do not feel listened to.” 

Are there other controversial motorway projects in France?

France has a number of other ongoing or impending motorway constructions including: an extension to the A104 around Paris; an extension to the A154 connecting Rouen and Orléans; the construction of the A120 in central France and handful other approved projects.

Some 20 further developments have been submitted for approval. France currently lays between 20,000 to 30,000 hectares of concrete every year, mostly for road construction. 

But the proposed A69 motorway has drawn the most controversy. 

What happens next? 

“We must push forward,” said Transport Minister Clément Beaune when pressed on the question of the A69 on France Inter on Tuesday. He conceded however that other road projects will be halted. 

“We will take courageous decisions to stop many projects because we need to be coherent. When dealing with the ecological crisis, we cannot do like before. We have already cut road construction in half and we will continue this effort, building more train lines and less roads,” he said. 

In recent years public pressure has helped sink road construction projects like the A45 linking Lyon and Saint Etienne as well as the A147 between Limoges and Poitiers, which means the fate of the A69 might not be settled just yet.