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How heatwaves in Germany have led to thousands of deaths

Soaring summer temperatures led to thousands of heat-related deaths in Germany from 2018 to 2020, a study has revealed.

How heatwaves in Germany have led to thousands of deaths
The sun rises in Baden-Württemberg during a heatwave in the middle of June. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

For the first time since the start of the study period in 1992, an usually high number of heat-related deaths occurred on three years in a row, researchers from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the Federal Environmental Agency (Uba) and the German Weather Service (DWD) wrote on Friday in the medical newspaper Deutsches Ärzteblatt.

Between 2018 and 2020, almost 20,000 heat-related deaths were recorded – especially among elderly people – as the country experienced more ferocious and frequent summer heatwaves. 

The authors of the study said that, while heat was not often reported as a direct cause of death, sweltering temperatures can affect people’s health in a variety of ways. 

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“High outdoor temperatures affect the body in many ways and can, for example, put a great strain on the cardiovascular system,” they wrote. “In particular, heat can aggravate existing conditions such as respiratory problems.” 

The effect on the population’s health was particularly strong four years ago when German experienced its second-hottest summer on record. 

“In particular, 2018, with an estimated number of about 8,700 heat-related deaths, is of a similar magnitude to the historical heatwave years of 1994 and 2003 (about 10,000 deaths each),” the researchers explained. 

In 2018, Germany experienced an unusually long heatwave as well as conspicuously high weekly average temperatures over summer. In 2019, the researchers estimate that 6,900 heat-related deaths occurred, which dropped to 3,700 in 2020. For 2021, no significantly increased heat-related mortality was found. 

Climate change

Average temperatures in Germany were 3C warmer than usual this June – reflecting a trend towards extreme summer heat in recent years.

And it’s not just summer that’s getting hotter: both January and February were unusually mild this year, with average temperatures 3.5C and 4.1C higher respectively. For the year as a whole, experts estimate that the weather will be 2.4C hotter on average.

Climate experts are concerned that these high temperatures are becoming the new normal in Germany, with severe heat arriving more frequently and lasting for longer spells. 

READ ALSO: Weather: Germany sees extreme heat and storms

dry earth heatwave Dresden

Dry, cracked earth on the bank of the Elbe River in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Robert Michael

However, since 1992, the influence of these high temperatures on mortality has decreased slightly overall, the study says. This could be due to the fact that people have started to adapt to the hotter summers.

“Individual behavioural changes through greater awareness, such as wearing airy clothing, drinking enough fluids or seeking shaded or air-conditioned rooms, are conceivable,” the authors wrote. 

Nevertheless, the years 2018 to 2020 show that “heat events continue to be a serious threat to the health of people in Germany”. The researchers say the handling of heat periods in Germany must be significantly improved and vulnerable population groups must be adequately protected.

Since heat is rarely recorded as a direct cause of death, the study authors used statistical methods for their analysis.

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CLIMATE

US climate subsidies unsettle Germany’s green industry plans

The financial incentives for domestic industries, approved by Washington under the banner of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August, have put a question mark over a huge green energy project in the north west of Germany.

US climate subsidies unsettle Germany's green industry plans

An empty field near Heide in a corner of Germany known more for its cabbage farming is the chosen site for a huge battery factory and potential pillar of the country’s future green economy.

Manufacturer Northvolt chose the location in the northern region of Schleswig-Holstein primarily for the abundance of renewable energy produced by the wind whipping in off the North Sea.

With that power the Swedish company hopes to build the “cleanest” battery factory in the world — which would eventually produce cells for one million electric vehicles a year — reducing Europe’s reliance on Chinese manufacturers.

But massive green subsidies on offer in the United States — totalling $370 billion (339 billion euros) — have unsettled the plans and sent European policymakers scrambling to find a response.

The financial incentives for domestic industries, approved by Washington under the banner of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August, have put a question mark over the Northvolt project in Heide.

Combined with the surge in energy prices in Europe following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Northvolt was “at a point where we can give priority to expansion in the United States” with other projects delayed, CEO Peter Carlsson said in October.

‘Committed’

In Heide, officials were “surprised” by Northvolt’s comments but remain optimistic that the factory will be built.

The potential for thousands of jobs and creating a new local industry was “very important” for the region, as well as Germany and Europe, Heide mayor Oliver Schmidt-Gutzat told AFP.

Germany’s future as an “auto nation” depended on having a domestic industrial base capable of building “the most important components in terms of added value”, including batteries, local IG Metall union leader Martin Bitter told AFP.

“Europe has to react” to stop industries and jobs from drifting towards the United States, the union official said, calling for more state support.

For its part, Northvolt remained “committed to its expansion in Europe”, a spokesman said. The battery maker was not “stepping on the brake” but pushing forward with discussions on the factory, Bjoern Joergensen, a local government official representing the communities around Heide, told AFP.

Were European officials to agree a response to the IRA, “then they (Northvolt) are more likely to be here”, said mayor Schmidt-Gutzat.

‘Opportunity’

Other industries have started to review their investments. Solar panel makers, such as Italy’s 3Sun and Meyer Burger from Switzerland have already announced the expansion or installation of new projects in the United States.

Dirtier sectors are also exercising pressure on governments to back their efforts to decarbonise.

“I think matching the IRA is almost non-negotiable,” said ArcelorMittal CEO Aditya Mittal, whose group plans to invest 1.7 billion euros to reduce emissions at its sites in the industrial heartlands of northern France.

The European Commission on Wednesday put forward its first proposals in response to the IRA, including a controversial relaxing of state aid rules.

Officials have floated the possibility of creating a new EU fund to back green industries, but the idea has already been strongly opposed by some member states.

“Starting a large-scale and excessive subsidy competition with the United States is not government policy,” German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said at the end of January.

Similarly, German industry is hoping for a response but has warned against the risks of a trade confrontation with the United States.

The two sides needed to hold “discussions between friends”, said Siegfried Russwurm, head of the influential BDI industrial lobby. “Transatlantic cooperation is more important than ever.”

Karine Vernier, head of sustainable investment fund InnoEnergy in France, said the EU should see the US plans “not as a threat, but an opportunity” to boost its own green infrastructure. “The Americans created the IRA for reasons of energy sovereignty, Europe must do the same,” she told AFP.

READ MORE: How disasters linked to climate crisis have cost Germany tens of billions

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