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Extreme weather events in Europe sound alarm on climate change

A goose looks for water in the dried bed of Lake Velence in Velence, Hungary, on Aug 11, 2022. (ANNA SZILAGYI / AP)

LONDON – From scorching sun and drying rivers to devastating floods, another year of extreme weather gripped Europe in 2022, warning about the impact of climate change and sending a cautionary note that more human efforts are needed for a greener future.

'Live picture of a warming world'

When a cold snap gripped Northern Europe in mid-December and snow, a rare occurrence, blanketed London, memories of the extreme summer heat still lingered. In July, the United Kingdom (UK) recorded its highest ever temperature. Hungary this year also endured its hottest summer since 1901.

Amid the scorching heatwaves, natural disasters ensued. A wildfire caused by a lightning strike in June became the worst ever recorded in Spain. Several parts of Italy also saw wildfires, including a massive one that burned over 850 hectares of land and forced more than 1,000 residents to evacuate

Amid the scorching heatwaves, natural disasters ensued. A wildfire caused by a lightning strike in June became the worst ever recorded in Spain. Several parts of Italy also saw wildfires, including a massive one that burned over 850 hectares of land and forced more than 1,000 residents to evacuate.

In late August, Europe was experiencing its worst drought in at least 500 years, with almost two-thirds of the continent in a state of alert or warning. Water levels of the river Drava in eastern Croatia dropped to a historic low.

Floods have posed another threat. A storm hit the northern Adriatic port of Rijeka in Croatia in September, with the downpour flooding the city center and damaging buildings. Intense rains early this month in Portugal also led to disturbances to road traffic and flooding at Lisbon Airport.

ALSO READ: EU agency: Europe facing worst drought in 500 years

With the higher frequency of extreme weather events came increasing concerns over climate change. Temperatures in Europe have increased at more than twice the global average over the past 30 years, the highest of any continent in the world, a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) showed in early November. As a result, Alpine glaciers lost 30 meters in ice thickness from 1997 to 2021, and the Greenland ice sheet is melting and contributing to accelerating sea level rise, the report said.

"Europe presents a live picture of a warming world and reminds us that even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events," WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas said.

Huge losses

Humans have paid a high price because of these extreme weather events, with lives lost to the natural disasters. During the five heat periods this summer, the estimated excess mortality in England was 2,803 for those aged 65 and over, the highest since the introduction of a heatwave plan in 2004.

A silhouette of a firefighter is pictured during a wildfire in Manteigas, central Portugal, on Aug 10, 2022. (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

In Spain, this summer was not only the hottest on record, but also the deadliest in 20 years, as thousands of people have died from heat-related causes on top of the high death toll associated with COVID-19.

"Most at risk are the very young and the very old or those with a chronic illness that prevents them from hydrating themselves or those who are unable to avoid the heat," Emilio Salgado, senior specialist in the Emergency Department of Barcelona's Hospital Clinic, told Xinhua.

ALSO READ: 'Spanish Stonehenge' emerges from drought-hit dam

The deadliest extreme climate events in Europe are heatwaves, particularly in Western and Southern Europe, the WMO explained. "The combination of climate change, urbanization and population ageing in the region creates, and will further exacerbate, vulnerability to heat," it said.

Pressure has been piling on the economy. Public transport was disrupted across the UK amid heatwaves. Severe droughts undermined supply chains on waterways in Germany. In France, wine production suffered in quantity and quality, while Italy saw agricultural production slashed.Climate-related events, including heatwaves, floods and storms, have caused over 145 billion euros ($154.2 billion) in economic losses in the European Union (EU) over the past decade, the bloc's statistical office Eurostat said in late October.

The highest total loss was recorded in 2017, reaching 27.9 billion euros, because of the heatwaves registered in Europe that dried the land and caused wildfires, Eurostat added.

Double standards

The prolonged energy crisis has distracted Europe from its green goals, as many countries considered turning back to coal to secure energy supplies. Germany, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands and Greece were among the first to reopen coal power plants or take measures to support coal power.

Europe's thermal coal imports through November jumped by 36.2 percent from the same period in 2021 to roughly 83 million tonnes, a Reuters columnist quoted ship-tracking data from Kpler as saying in a December article.

This summer, the European Parliament also voted in favor of plans to award a green investment label to nuclear and gas projects, sparking claims of "greenwashing" by some EU member states and environmental lobbyists.

"European countries, which have been the chief beneficiaries of carbon pollution, are taking deliberate energy policy that clearly impinges on environmental protection aspirations. It is a demonstration of double standards," Kenya-based international relations scholar Cavince Adhere said.

READ MORE: Dutch government declares water shortage due to drought

In early December, the UK government also approved the country's first new coal mine in three decades, largely for steelmaking. Despite an official endorsement that the mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and contribute to local employment, criticism mounted over its lasting environmental impact.

The coal mine will release some 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years, according to Myles Allen, professor of geosystem sciences at the University of Oxford.

Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate change economics and policy at the University of Oxford, emphasized the difference between a short-term increase in fossil fuel use in response to the energy crisis, and new long-term investment in a coal mine.

The decision to approve the mine sends a completely wrong message about the UK's commitment to net zero, Fankhauser said. "It looks hypocritical in the eyes of low-income countries, whose own fossil fuel ambitions we have repeatedly criticized."