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CLIMATE CRISIS

‘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
consumers.

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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ENVIRONMENT

Water limits, apps and leaks: How France plans to deal with future droughts

France's environment minister Christophe Béchu has announced a series of measures to reduce French people's water consumption, as the country grapples with rising temperatures and more frequent droughts.

Water limits, apps and leaks: How France plans to deal with future droughts

“There will be a before and an after summer 2022,” Béchu revealed in an interview with Le Parisien, as he unveiled a plan to reduce water consumption in France, clearly indicating that there is no longer any possibility of doing nothing.

The hot, dry summer of 2022 was marked by a severe drought as well as scorching temperatures, and climate crisis means that such summers are set to become the norm.

Over the summer virtually the whole of France had some sorts of water restrictions in place and several communes lost their drinking water supply entirely. 

“Almost all départements have been affected by restriction measures and 700 municipalities have experienced difficulties in supplying drinking water,” Béchu said.

Even in January,  restrictions are in place in some parts of France, the Propluvia website shows.

READ ALSO Ask the expert: Why was France’s summer 2022 drought so bad and what will happen next?

He pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was warning of a 10 to 40 percent drop in river levels by 2050, and set out a target of cutting the volume of water taken from underground by “a little over” 10 percent by 2027 to ease the problem.

“The first objective is to reduce the volume of groundwater used by a little over 10 percent by the end of the five-year period. That is to say a decrease of 4 billion cubic metres out of a total of 33 collected each year,” he said.

“The best water retention is the water table, which is natural and has no evaporation effect.”

Farmers

Unsurprisingly, the biggest water consumers in France are farmers and agricultural businesses.

Béchu said no additional restrictions would be in place for agricultural water use, but he asked farmers “to be careful with regard to water consumption”.

READ ALSO French farmers warn of rising prices for fruit and vegetables after drought

“There is no agriculture without water and it would be hypocritical to set too many restrictions on French agriculture,” he said. 

Households

Béchu said that plans will be in place before the summer encouraging and obliging individuals to reduce their water consumption – and cited the possibility of introducing hourly restrictions on water use in certain areas. 

He pointed out that enforcing restrictions in July – via traditional methods – would be too late because “we can no longer correct [the problem].”

The Minister also announced plans to develop “a form of Ecowatt water, on which we will find the pressure on water supply locally”. 

The Ecowatt app shows users the risk of power cuts in their areas – the water app would be similar and users will also receive advice on how to reduce their water use.

Building

“We consume 150 litres of water per person per day,” Béchu said. “We must be able to change certain construction rules.”

He estimated that, in some areas, as much as 70 percent of drinking water was lost to leaks – the national average is around 20 percent. “We need to eliminate the black spots and make local players responsible. 

READ ALSO IN PICTURES: French drought intensifies as River Loire dries up

“This is the work we have undertaken with Bérangère Couillard, the Secretary of State for Ecology. 

“We cannot keep communes managing drinking water alone. The objective of installing water management in inter-municipalities by 2026 must be met.”

Recycling

A measly one percent of wastewater in France is reused, way behind other countries – while toilets use water suitable for drinking.

Béchu said that only 77 of the 33,000 wastewater treatment plants in France are equipped with complete recycling treatment systems. 

“We must … think about rainwater and grey water (domestic water with little pollution) and use common sense,” he said, adding that the rules in France “will evolve”.

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