European heatwaves linger on at fag end of summer

Europe more dependent on fossil fuels despite rising forest fires

Environment

August 26, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

European heatwaves linger on at fag end of summer

Heatwave is Europe, where millions of people continue to suffer (Photo:Niklas Halle'n / AFP - Getty Images)

Even though the summer in Europe is officially ending, there is no end in sight to the high temperatures, which though lower than the record highs earlier this month, are still at least 8-10°C more than the normal in various parts of the continent. Ironically, despite battling fiery temperatures and record levels of intense forest fires, the EU is increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, notably coal, as the Russia-Ukraine war forces EU to cut back on use of Russian gas.

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Last week of August is meant to be rather pleasant in Europe as the summer wanes but leaves enough of sun to keep the clouds and rain at bay. The normal temperatures are in mid-20°C and minimums around 15°C. But on August 25, Paris was still sweltering at 33°C and Koln in Germany at 32°C. As they were at least 10°C above the normal temperatures, it was evident that the deadly and record heatwave was still wagging its tail in Europe.

Certainly, the current temperatures are nothing of the sort registered in July and even up to mid-August when almost all of Europe, right from the United Kingdom to Ukraine sweltered under record highs of 40°C and above. The 2022 summer had brought the entire continent on its knees with the UK sweating it out at 41°C and large parts of southern Europe, all the way from Portugal through to Greece have been burning literally as large, uncontrolled forest fires take hold of vast tracts of land and that have continued to burn despite numerous efforts to put them out.

The extensive and severe heatwave is believed to have caused at least 4,000 deaths across Europe, with Spain, Portugal and Greece accounting for the most. The news is nothing less than a massive, continental-scale tragedy being played out as Europe emerges from its worst ever summer.

Certainly, this is not the first severely hot summer that Europe has faced. Over the past few years, heatwaves, record temperatures and extensive forest fires seem to have become regular features of a traditional European summer. But each year, the mercury goes a notch higher, while forest fires begin earlier, last longer and cover a much larger area. There is hardly any part of Europe that has escaped the heatwaves as the last two years also saw record temperatures in the Arctic Circle and extensive fires in the Siberian steppes.

The repeated incidents ought to have convinced even the most cynical politician and businessman in Europe about the fact that global warming is not just real or here, but is here to stay and increase in intensity, as has been the case over past several years, unless dramatic and long-term steps are immediately taken to curb the man-made causes behind global warming.

But even as Europe burns and singes under the heat, in the airconditioned comforts of corporate boardrooms and government offices, almost entirely cut off from the calamitous climate crisis unfolding out, the bosses of European big businesses and government leaders are taking decisions that are bound to add fuel, rather fossil fuel, to the fire. Two decisions, both related to the much-blackened fossil fuels, stand out notably for not just being just the opposite of what the current situation demands, but also for being in total contradiction to the long-standing commitments of the European Union and which have only recently been reaffirmed or even strengthened.

The first is coal. For years or even decades, various EU nations have promised to rapidly phase out coal not only from its power generation but also close down the relatively few coal mines that remain operational in some EU countries, notably Germany, Poland and France. In fact, during the climate change summit Cop 24, held in Katowice in Poland in 2018, when the host nation dragged its feet over faster phase out of coal from its power mix, it was lambasted particularly harshly by its fellow EU members, who held loftier goals for moving towards cleaner fuels to run their economies.

However, fairly rapidly the sheen has come off many of Europe’s big claims on making its economy green and wean it off fossil fuels rapidly. In face of sharp rise in oil and gas prices that gripped the global economy in second half of 2021, most of the EU countries began looking for sources other than oil or gas and turned almost instinctively and collectively towards coal. Hence, after having dipped for years, if not decades, coal consumption in Europe registered its first rise, from 386 million tonnes to 400 million tonnes.

In face of rising prices, countries across Europe, from the UK to Germany, France and Italy as well as many Central European nations, postponed planned closure of coal-fired power plants. Similarly, coal mines where production had been falling have seen a fresh wave of activity and investment and the closure of several mines across central Europe was put off.

Most of these decisions had been taken in 2021 itself, well before the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Europe has found itself pushed even further into a corner due to its high dependence on Russian oil and gas. This is the sole reason that even nations like Germany resisted putting Russian gas on list of Russian goods that would attract sanctions. Now, with the Russian gas producer Gazprom itself threatening to turn off the supplies, Europe is scurrying for solutions to keep its economy powered, especially as the winter approaches when power consumption and fuel consumption rise over 2.5 times, mainly to heat homes and offices.

Thus, though no data is available as of now, it is a definite corollary that coal consumption in Europe is set to register its second consecutive year of rise, for the first time in over a decade. Though EU leaders will almost surely blame Russia for this, it would be nothing but a sham and a poor display of political will to stand by its commitments on climate change.

The EU’s posturing on fossil fuel addiction is exposed by another recent decision taken by the big economies of the European Union, to oppose a faster phase out of combustion engine cars and move towards a completely electric power-driven transportation across the Union.

In July, after the European Commission moved a proposal to ban sale of internal combustion engine cars in the EU area from 2035, in order to meet its target of cutting carbon emissions by 55 pc from 1990 levels by 2030, several member states rejected it. The list includes the three biggest economies of the EU — Germany, France and Italy, which are also major automobile producers and have hundreds of thousands of people working in the car factories. But the opposition is not just from these big economies. Even smaller countries like Portugal, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania are opposed to the ban.

Most of the opposition stems from the desire of the politicians not to have to deal with protesting employees of the car makers out on the streets, as ban on ICE cars is bound to lead to some job losses. The ban would also displease the corporate bosses in the auto sector, amongst the most powerful businesses in Europe. Hence, they prefer to postpone the unpleasant decision, even if absolutely necessary, for another leader to deal with.

In face of such opposition, the EU’s decision is almost certain to be rejected when the appointed time comes. But the opposition to ICE ban again exposes the lack of firmness amongst EU leadership to take the steps that are needed to deal with climate change and at least ensure that Europe is able to live up to its commitments to cut carbon emissions.

As in coal, the EU is taking a convenient step in the issue of fossil fuel driven cars too. But it needs to take harsh measures if it is to be a responsible global citizen and mitigate the climate change to the extent possible. Despite all the cuts in carbon emissions, EU’s per capita emission remains extremely high at over 6 million tonnes per year, while the average for an African nation or even India, the third largest overall emitter, is well below 2 million tonnes per person per year.

The heat waves and forest fires, often followed by devastating floods, are bound to become a constant feature in Europe and not just in peak summer. But one wonders which calamity would it take to move the European leaders enough to take the steps that are needed and needed now

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