‘A code red’: Will Europeans change their habits after climate crisis ‘reality check’?

Europe was hit by a series of extreme weather events this summer that left rivers dry and forests burned but will people wake up to the "reality check" or go on eating as much steak and taking the plane?

'A code red': Will Europeans change their habits after climate crisis 'reality check'?
An inland vessel navigates on the Rhine as the partially dried-up river bed is seen in the foreground in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on July 25, 2022, as Europe experiences a heatwave. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Wildfires and storms. Rivers at record lows. Parched crops withering in the fields. For many Europeans, this year’s scorching summer means climate change is increasingly hard to ignore.

After months of cloudless days and drought, the weather has been one of the major themes of media coverage — and discussions during family gatherings — over the annual August holiday period.

“This summer has seen a series of extreme weather events,” French government spokesman Olivier Veran told a first press conference after he and
the government returned to the office last week.

It had been a “complete reality check, even for the most sceptical,” he said.

An aerial view taken on August 4, 2022 in Les Brenets shows the dry bed of Brenets Lake (Lac des Brenets), part of the Doubs River, a natural border between eastern France and western Switzerland, as much of Europe bakes in a third heatwave since June. – The river has dried up due to a combination of factors, including geological faults that drain the river, decreased rainfall and heatwaves. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

France experienced its second-hottest summer on record, its driest one since 1976 and the worst in terms of the loss of forestry to wildfires since
2003, he said.

In recent months, some French villages have needed to be supplied with water trucks as their usual sources have dried up. Fires have repeatedly
ravaged pine forests near Bordeaux.

Even in the normally verdant Alps, cheese makers complain that their cows are producing less milk than usual because their pastures are dried up.

The picture is similar across Europe.

In Italy, the collapse of the country’s largest Alpine glacier in July sparked an avalanche that killed 11 people.

“The year 2022 in terms of extreme climate events is code red,” said the head of environmental group Legambiente, Stefano Ciafani, in an August report.

After a punishing drought, around 400 Spanish wildfires destroyed 290,000 hectares (72,000 acres) of forest — way above the recent average of 67,000 hectares a year.

As reservoir water levels plunged, a previously flooded centuries-old church and a huge megalithic complex emerged from their depths.

And a year after shocking major floods that claimed more than 180 lives in Germany, the country saw the Rhine river — a crucial trade route — shrink to levels that were barely navigable.

An inland vessel navigates on the Rhine as the partially dried-up river bed is seen in the foreground in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on July 25, 2022, as Europe experiences a heatwave. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Jets and steak

The question for experts and campaigners is how much the sweltering summer of 2022 will translate into political change and lifestyle shifts from

As people return to work, France’s green EELV party has been setting the news agenda with eye-catching proposals to crack down on executive jets as well as private swimming pools.

“We’ve just lived through a summer when we’ve seen the real impact of climate change for the first time and what are we doing? What are we prepared to do?” said leading MP Sandrine Rousseau.

She found herself at the centre of a national furore this week after suggesting men needed to cut down on emissions-heavy barbecued steak which
they saw as a “symbol of virility.”

“What has become quite obvious is that climate impacts and climate hazards are happening throughout Europe to differing degrees and with differing hazards,” Carolina Cecilio from the E3G think-tank told AFP.

“It’s not limited to southern Europe, which is more used to periods of drought and forest fires,” she added.

Greater awareness in big EU member states such as France, Germany and Italy could help “shape the political agenda,” Cecilio said.

A picture taken on August 16, 2022 shows a pier in a part of the peninsula of Sirmione on Lake Garda, northern Italy, as the lake’s waters recede due to severe drought. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

Energy crisis

Some campaigners see an opportunity for real change in the energy crisis that has gripped Europe since Russia began turning off its gas deliveries
following its invasion of Ukraine.

“I think that the scale and the coming together of overlapping crises should drive us to really question our use of energy,” Lola Vallejo from the
IDDRI think-tank told AFP.

“We can only hope that the summer we’ve just lived through will play a role in accelerating our collective will,” said Vallejo.

But a working paper from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in June laid bare the scale of the challenge.

Analysing survey results from 20 mostly rich countries, its experts concluded that climate change awareness was high, with 60-90 percent of people
understanding it was caused by human activity.

The problem was their willingness to change.

“Respondents were generally unwilling to limit their beef or meat consumption significantly. Few are willing to limit driving or heating or cooling their homes by a lot,” the authors wrote.

Italy’s elections on September 25 will be a test of how much climate change has really hit home, with campaigning so far dominated by worries about the cost of living.

Polls suggests that the next government could be a coalition of far-right and right-wing parties who have put it low on their agenda.

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Can Norway be both a climate leader and a major oil and gas producer?

Norway is a world leader on electric vehicles and CO2 capture, and set a 55 percent emissions reduction goal for 2030 a year before the EU. But can it combine climate leadership with its oil and gas industry?

Can Norway be both a climate leader and a major oil and gas producer?

In the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference held over the next two weeks in Dubai, a group of 200 top researchers based in Norway published an open letter to Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, calling on him to bring a pledge to end oil production in Norway to the conference.  

“We, as members of the scientific community, ask you to restore Norway’s climate leadership,” they wrote. “This can only be achieved if you commit, in a similar way to our neighbouring country Denmark, to an end date for the extraction of oil and gas.” 

If Støre were to do this, they argued, it would make Norway a trailblazer at the summit. 

Støre responded, telling the VG newspaper that his government would do no such thing.

Continuing with oil exploration, he argued, was in no way incompatible with taking responsibility for fighting climate change.

“At the climate summit in Dubai, we will do our part to ensure that the countries of the world can achieve the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5C.” 

Is he right?

Norway’s Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, when attending the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December 2022. Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP

How does the oil and gas industry contribute to Norway’s emissions?  

Norway’s oil and gas industry is responsible for about a quarter of domestic emissions, but if you look at the total emissions released by burning oil and gas produced in Norway, the impact is ten times bigger. 

According to Statistics Norway, about 12 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent were emitted in 2022 as a result of oil and gas extraction on Norwegian territory. That is 25 percent of the total emissions of 48.9 million tonnes. 

“The oil and gas industry is currently the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in Norway, so obviously it has to play a major part if emissions are to be brought down,” said Bård Lahn, a researcher at Oslo University’s TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture. 

Figures put together by Robbie Andrew, a senior scientist at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo (Cicero), however, show that annual worldwide emissions from all the oil and gas produced in Norway are expected to hit 475 million tonnes in 2023. 

That is 40 times the domestic emissions from Norway’s oil and gas production. 

He expects total emissions caused by Norwegian oil and gas to climb to about 503 million tonnes in 2025 as the giant Johan Sverdrup field reaches peak production. After this, emissions are expected to decline. 

Graphic: Robbie Andrew/Cicero

Does Norway’s oil and gas industry make it harder to reach its climate goals? 

At a debate on the environment ahead of municipal elections in September, Støre was the only one of Norway’s party leaders who said he believed the country was on track to meet its 2030 climate goal.

Norway has just six years to reduce its emissions to 55 percent of 1990 levels. In 2022, they were down just 4.6 percent, and a big reason why emissions have not fallen more has been the growth of the oil industry.

The oil industry has increased its domestic emissions by 46 percent over the period. 

Lahn pointed out that because the oil sector is part of the EU emissions trading system (ETS), Norway is not legally obliged to cut emissions in the sector to meet its EU targets, as oil companies can instead buy emissions allowances. 

“So the question is really whether Norway should continue to pay for emission reductions in other countries to shield its oil and gas industry from emission reductions, and how such a strategy will look as the rest of Europe is increasingly decarbonizing.” 

Emissions from the oil and has sector down about 20 percent from 2015, and saw a small decline in 2022, something Andrew said was more of an achievement than many realise, given that the giant Melkøya LNG plant had come back online after an 18-month outage.  

“Emissions didn’t go up, and the reason for that is that at the same time, a lot of other things were happening that were cutting emissions,” he said.

These included the connection of the Edvard Grieg platform to the mainland power grid. 

The Ministry of Petroleum expects domestic emissions from oil and gas production to fall a further 10 percent by 2027.

The oil industry itself has committed to a goal of reducing its own emissions by 50 percent by 2030.

But its main route to doing this is connecting more offshore platforms to the domestic grid, which is incresingly blamed for pushing up power prices. 

“This is an increasingly controversial measure, so it remains to be seen whether it can actually be met,” Lahn said. 

Is there any international pressure on oil and gas producers to cut production? 

There will be a battle at the COP28 summit over setting a date and deciding on the language for a phase-out of fossil fuel use. 

The EU’s official negotiating position is that the conference should agree that meeting the 1.5C goal “will require the global phase-out of unabated fossil fuels”, something it, along with Norway, pushed for but which did get into the text at the COP27 in Egypt last year. 

Outside the COP process, the governments of Denmark and Costa Rica in 2020 formed the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which has so far got 12 countries to commit to issue no more licenses for oil and gas exploration and set a date for ending oil and gas production. 

So far, though, no major oil producer has signed up. 

What is Norway’s position on phasing out oil and gas production? 

Norway’s Environment Minister, Espen Barth Eide, was asked by the UAE ahead of COP28 to “undertake informal consultations on behalf of the COP 28 President Designate” with countries attending on what their views are on what should be discussed and agreed on “mitigation”.

“Most countries agree that we need to speak more seriously about the energy transition,” he told the UAE newspaper, The National, about his findings.

“Some countries will emphasise the new part – bringing in more renewables, more energy savings and more uses of green, renewable or otherwise non-emitting energies – some other countries want to be more explicit about the phase-down or phase-out of coal, oil and gas”.

Norway’s position, he said, is that the “phase out of unabated fossil fuels” should be achieved by targeting consumption and not by setting targets or an end date for oil and gas producers.

“We insist that it cannot only be a supply-side transition. It has to be demand-side as well, which means we have to change the way we use energy,” he said.

In his response to the Norwegian scientists’ open letter, Støre made the same argument against setting targets for lower production off fossil fuels. 

“We know that the demand side for oil and gas will fall, and that means that the phasing out will take place gradually,” he wrote.  “I do not believe that setting an end date will give European countries the energy they need.” 

So can Norway combine being a climate leader with being an oil producer? 

Lahn is not so sure, arguing that the Paris Agreement goals in practice will mean getting rid of fossil fuels almost completely. 

“I think Norway’s balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult,” he said. “I think the pressure on fossil fuel producers is going to increase over the coming years, and this year’s COP in the UAE really helps put the spotlight on the role of fossil fuel producers.”