EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

From deadly wildfires to catastrophic floods, Europe is seeing the impact of the climate crisis with episodes of extreme weather only likely to increase in the coming years as average temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard
Tourists watch from the roadside as dense smoke darkens the sky from reignited forest fires north of Grimaud, in the department of Var, southern France on August 18, 2021. - (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

Europe endured record extreme weather in 2021, from the hottest day and the warmest summer to deadly wildfires and
flooding, the European Union’s climate monitoring service reported Friday.

While Earth’s surface was nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe saw an average increase of more than two degrees, a threshold beyond which dangerous extreme weather events become
more likely and intense, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said.

The warmest summer on record featured a heatwave along the Mediterranean rim lasting weeks and the hottest day ever registered in Europe, a blistering 48.8C (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in Italy’s Sicily.

In Greece, high temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires described by the prime minister as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

Forests and homes across more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,000 square miles) were burned to the ground.

Front loaders work to move branches and uprooted trees near a bridge over the Ahr river in Insul, Ahrweiler district, western Germany, on July 28, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. – At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann / AFP)

A slow-moving, low-pressure system over Germany, meanwhile, broke the record in mid-July for the most rain dumped in a single day.

The downpour was nourished by another unprecedented weather extreme, surface water temperatures over part of the Baltic Sea more than 5C above average.

Flooding in Germany and Belgium caused by the heavy rain — made far more likely by climate change, according to peer-reviewed studies — killed scores and caused billions of euros in damage.

As the climate continues to warm, flooding on this scale will become more frequent, the EU climate monitor has warned.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”     

A picture taken on July 15, 2021 shows damaged cars on a flooded street in the Belgian city of Verviers, after heavy rains and floods lashed western Europe, killing at least two people in Belgium. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

‘Running out of time’

The annual report, in its fifth edition, also detailed weather extremes in the Arctic, which has warmed 3C above the 19th-century benchmark — nearly three times the global average.

Carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires, mostly in eastern Siberia, topped 16 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon pollution of Bolivia.

Greenland’s ice sheet — which along with the West Antarctic ice sheet has become the main driver of sea level rise — shed some 400 billion tonnes in mass in 2021.

The pace at which the world’s ice sheets are disintegrating has accelerated more than three-fold in the last 30 years.

“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned us we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, referring to the UN’s science advisory panel.

“This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate-related extreme events are already occurring.”

Member comments

  1. The global run-up in temperature prior to the Maunder Minimum before the industrial revolution, during the middle ages was greater than the current run-up. Look to sunspots, not CO2.

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How climate change is threatening Germany’s forests

In the past three years, Germany has lost thousands of hectares of forest due to the ever warmer and drier climate. There are calls for new funding to help forest owners adapt to new conditions.

How climate change is threatening Germany's forests

What’s going on?

Over the past few years, the effects of climate change in Germany have become ever more noticeable. Along with more intense cold and heat spells, the country saw disastrous flash floods in 2021 that claimed more than a hundred lives and caused billions of euros of damage to homes and infrastructure. 

However, for the northern regions of the country in particular, it’s been the lack of rainfall and intense heat that has caused the most concern among agricultural workers and forest owners. 

They argue that Germany’s iconic woodland could become a victim of the climate crisis if more isn’t done to help the forests adapt. If that happens, they say, one of the major absorbers of CO2 in the atmosphere would no longer be available in the fight against global warming. 

Max von Elverfeldt, chairman of the family business Land und Forst, told DPA that a lack of investment in conserving forests would primarily affect future generations.

“Our forests are our most successful climate activists, without them we will not achieve our climate goals,” he explained.

How bad is the damage so far? 

According to Andreas Bitter, president of the Federation of German Forest Owners’ Associations (AGDW), more than 400,000 hectares of forest area have already been destroyed by the effects of heat and drought since 2018.

Back in February, an intense storm destroyed swathes of a forest in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, ripping 60-year-old trees out by their roots and affecting around half a million cubic metres of land. 

Speaking ahead of a meeting of the state agriculture ministers on Monday, Bitter warned: “Time is pressing. The government must act.” 

He said funding for forest adaptation to climate change should be implemented quickly, otherwise it would be too late.

The president of the German Forestry Council, Georg Schirmbeck, put the material damage caused by drought and bark beetle infestation at €12.5 billion, spread over three years of crisis.

“Assets were literally destroyed,” he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

What exactly are forest owners calling for?

Campaigners primarily want additional funding to be freed up and used for projects that will make forests better equipped to deal with the changing climate. 

According to Schirmbeck, the transformation of the forests could cost around €50bn in total, with at least €1 billion in support needed each year from the state. 

The president of the German Forestry Council is also advocating for stricter guidelines on the sustainable use of wood.

“The renewable raw material wood, both as a building material and as a final energy source, is an important element in achieving the German government’s climate goals with the move away from fossil fuels,” said Schirmbeck.

Tegel forest in Berlin

Two cyclists enjoy sunny weather in Tegel Forest in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peer Grimm

Ahead of the meeting, the environmental association BUND laid out a number of proposals for preserving forests in the long term.

“Our forests have been weakened by several years of drought, over-intensive forestry and the large-scale cultivation of conifers,” BUND chairman Olaf Bandt told RND on Monday. “We demand an ecological forest turnaround.”

For example, at least one tenth of the forest area must be designated as natural forest and kept out of the hands of foresters. 

In addition, there must be “an immediate stop to logging in publicly owned deciduous forests that are more than 100 years old,” Bandt said. 

The rapid conversion of coniferous forests to deciduous forests and a different approach to wild animals such as deer, which use new plantations as food and thus damage them, are also necessary, he argued. 

READ ALSO: Germany chooses Greenpeace chief as first climate envoy

Are there any other perspectives? 

Yes. Naturally, the timber industry isn’t particularly enamoured with proposals to limit their access to the forest, and have argued that the number of new trees planted each year can easily replace what they remove. 

“It is best for climate protection if the CO2 is stored in wood products or if the wood replaces climate-polluting materials instead of letting it rot unused in the forest,” Denny Ohnesorge, managing director of the German Timber Industry Association (HDH), told RND.

Meanwhile, hunters have argued that the monocultures created by humans over decades is a huge cause of harm in the forests, and that more planting and reforestation is needed.