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Climate Change Comes for Europe

As deadly heatwaves and fires transform Europe this summer, the only question is why is anyone surprised?

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We’ve known this was coming in Europe. And the message couldn't be more explicit.

Fire burns thousands of hectares of land in Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Greece, and France. Thousands of European citizens have been evacuated, while the hot air and oftentimes uneven, mountain terrain make the firefighters' job even more difficult. The heat is taking more than land, costing some 1,700 deaths in Spain and Portugal alone.

The costs are mounting across the continent. Italy is facing an unprecedented water crisis with its largest river, the Po, drying up, threatening both crops and hydro energy production facilities. In Germany, 10 out of 16 states have announced the highest level of alert for fires. Even the famously cool and damp UK smashed three heat records in a day this summer, reaching a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) for the first time ever, fueling a horrendous series of wildfires and… airport runway surface to melt. Quite possibly because the temperatures seen in the UK were modelled to appear as far ahead as 2050 – not 2022.

Despite 19 of the last 20 years being the hottest on record, some still seem to be surprised by the severity and scale of the extreme weather events, like droughts and heatwaves. The negative impact of those does not limit to the danger posed to all living beings - such events impact all vital aspects of society, from food and energy production to water management, to transport, to public health. Surprised too by the heat and wildfires creating a vicious cycle that only encourages more heat and wildfires, with the July wildfires in Europe bellowing 11 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The equivalent of the annual emissions of a single country, like Estonia.

Yet, nobody should be surprised. For years, our top-tier scientists have warned of the consequence of burning fossil fuels far beyond what the Earth can handle. Now, years after global agreements to halt global warming, our own commitments loom heavily on us.

It seems that throughout the last four decades, few have truly listened and taken the warnings to heart. Sadly, the cast spell by the fossil fuels industry on decision-makers, politicians, and investors seems to still hold strong and hypnotize the most powerful to slow walk the necessary transition to renewable energy sources, when we should be running as fast as humanly possible.

Even this transition is now subject to sabotage. According to Greenpeace France’s research published just ahead of the European Parliament’s voting on the kinds of financial investments it could consider sustainable (known in Brussels as the "taxonomy"), Russian fossil fuel companies lobbied to add natural gas and nuclear energy to the list, trading our future for billions of euros.

Additionally, in a desperate attempt to secure heating and electricity supply for the winter, European politicians are negotiating new natural gas and LNG (liquified natural gas) investments with the US, Egypt, and Israel as part of the REPowerEU strategy to deal with the energy crisis and EU’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels. Moreover, four European nations have seen a minor increase in coal use for heating. Yet no matter how small, it is another act of desperation and turns to something familiar, no matter how defamed, i.e. fossil fuels.

We can do better.

The Climate Action Network Europe, the largest coalition of climate non-governmental organisations operating in the region, proposed an action plan to wean off Russian fossil fuels in less than four years, without new investments in fossil fuels. Doing so would mean a complete fossil gas phase-out by 2035 and accelerated progress in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources roll-out. The plan revolves around a 3 x 5 structure: featuring at least 5 million building unit renovations, 5 million new solar photovoltaic rooftops, and 5 million new heat pumps annually starting in 2025. However, for the plan to work, it has to begin immediately.

New investments in natural gas, its infrastructure, and other unsustainable energy resources will lock us to unprecedented global warming. Handled with courage and vision, the energy crisis brought by the Russian aggression in Ukraine could become a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accelerate the transition to a climate-neutral European economy. The continent has been seen as the leader of the progressive climate policy movement, yet proves otherwise with its current decisions. If not Europe, with all its capital, technologies, and resources, then who will lead the green transition?

To those truly disheartened by their national government’s action, or lack thereof, The Climate Reality Project Europe offer the tools to take matters into their own hands with our Climate Emergency Communities Guidelines - a set of actions for grassroots climate movements aimed at declaring a climate emergency and accelerating climate action on a local level. Learn more and download one of the eight language versions here.

Gosia Rychlik is the communications and development manager at The Climate Reality Project, Europe.