Europe to face “catastrophic” impacts

  • Post last modified:March 11, 2024
  • Reading time:6 mins read

A damning new EU climate risk report has warned that Europe could suffer “catastrophic” consequences from the climate crisis if it fails to take urgent and decisive action to adapt to risks.

Climate risks at “critical levels”

On Monday 11 March, the European Environment Agency released its first ever “European Climate Risk Assessment” report on the risks that the climate crisis poses to the continent.

The assessment identified 36 risks related to climate in Europe. Specifically, the report grouped these climate risks into five broad impact clusters. This included: ecosystems, food, health, infrastructure, and economy and finance. Notably, it stated that over half of these – 21 – demanded more immediate action, while eight were “particularly urgent.” The report noted that:

Depending on their nature, each of these risks alone has the potential to cause significant environmental degradation, economic damage, social emergencies and political turbulences; their combined effects are even more impactful.

The dangers included fires, water shortages and their effects on agricultural production, mass biodiversity loss in coastal and marine ecosystems, extreme heat, flooding, and saltwater intrusion into vital groundwater supplies.

Crucially, the agency said that:

Many of these risks have already reached critical levels and could become catastrophic without urgent and decisive action

At the top of the list were risks to ecosystems, mainly relating to coastal and marine ones.

For instance, the report highlighted that the climate crisis impacts result in a catastrophic combination of heat waves, as well as acidification and oxygen depletion of the seas. On top of this, other human-caused factors such as fishing, pollution, and eutrophication act as risk-multipliers. Eutrophication refers to an excess of nutrients which collapses aquatic ecosystems. Collectively, these significantly threaten marine ecosystems. The report noted that:

This can result in substantial biodiversity loss, including mass mortality events, and declines in ecosystem services

Climate risk hotspots

The report found that Southern Europe will be at particular risk to the intensifying impacts of the climate crisis. In particular, the report evaluated three of the risks as among the eight most urgent due to the impacts on Southern Europe.

It singled out the region as a climate risk hotspot due to wildfire-related and drought impacts on health, biodiversity, and crop production.

For instance, in 2023, countries in Southern Europe including Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy experienced major fires. Wildfires burnt over 500,000 hectares of natural land across the EU during the course of the year. Notably, the European Forest Fire Information Service (EFFIS) recorded the EU’s largest single wildfire ever, in Greece. The Evros blaze alone razed 77,000 hectares – approximately the scale of New York City.

Meanwhile, the report also highlighted low-lying coastal areas, including populated cities, as hotspots for other climate risks. There, sea-level rise will continue to risk groundwater, and cause coastal erosion and flooding.

Finally, the report emphasised greater climate risks for Europe’s outermost regions owing to their:

remote location, weaker infrastructure, limited economic diversification and, for some of them, strong reliance on a few economic activities.

Despite these exacerbated risks in hotspot regions, the report noted that northern Europe would not be spared the negative impact, as floods in Germany and forest fires in Sweden have demonstrated in recent years. As a result, the EEA warned that:

Extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and flooding, as experienced in recent years, will worsen in Europe even under optimistic global warming scenarios and affect living conditions throughout the continent

“Final wake-up call”

According to the EEA, European governments and populations unanimously recognising the risks and agreeing to do more, faster should be the priority.

EEA Executive Director Leena Yla-Mononen told a press briefing ahead of the report’s release that:

These events are the new normal

Moreover, she said that the new analysis stressed that:

Europe faces urgent climate risks that are growing faster than our societal preparedness. To ensure the resilience of our societies, European and national policymakers must act now to reduce climate risks both by rapid emission cuts and by strong adaptation policies and actions.

However, Europe – like other parts of the Global North – has been fudging a full phase out of fossil fuels. For example, some major economies in Europe have doubled-down on liquified natural gas (LNG) – fossil gas – imports and financing in the Global South. Meanwhile, Europe’s major development bank is keeping the door open to potentially fund new fossil fuel refineries, pipelines, and power plants internationally.

Yla-Mononen said that the report should be:

the wake-up call. The final wake-up call

In other words, if Europe fails to take concrete action, and fast, its frontline communities will face the full force of these devastating climate impacts. Given the extreme wildfires and floods that have decimated Europe, inaction is already taking its toll.

Feature image via AFP News Agency/YouTube screengrab. 

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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