Climate catastrophe hits Europe

Ahmed Mustafa, Thursday 25 Aug 2022

Climate change is causing catastrophic conditions across the world, with many European countries this year suffering the most.

Climate catastrophe hits Europe
Low water levels are pictured at Bough Beech Reservoir near Sevenoaks in Kent, southeast of London on August 12, 2022. - The UK government on Friday officially declared a drought across swathes of England, including Kent, following months of record low rainfall and unprecedented high temperatures in recent weeks. (photo: AFP)


This week, the water companies in the UK imposed a “hosepipe ban” that prevents people from watering their gardens and if broken could lead to a 1,000 pound fine. This is the latest measure that has been introduced to try to deal with the water scarcity caused by low rainfall and high temperatures.

Last week, I visited the area where the River Thames originates in southwest England close to Wales. The water level was not only low, but there was no water at all. Not only that, but the river bottom was a dry, cracked surface due to the heat.

I was accompanying a group of journalists and others, one of them being an environmental reporter and a PhD student focusing on climate change. She said that all eyes were now on the UN COP27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in November this year, hoping that this will see a serious deal to deal with the growing effects of climate change.

The UK might officially be out of the EU, but it shares the same climatic and weather conditions with many EU countries. It has suffered from sweltering heat this summer that has led to fires across the country. Much of the European continent has similarly suffered in recent weeks, with fires destroying tens of thousands of acres of forest and other land in Spain, Portugal, France and elsewhere.

In addition to the direct losses of agricultural produce burnt in the fires, the high temperatures and drought have also adversely affected other crops across Europe. France is the third-largest wheat exporter in the world after Russia and the US, for example, but its wheat crop will be down by between seven and 15 per cent this year.

In Italy and Spain, the olive crop is expected to be down by more than half, with this resulting in rising prices of olive oil.

According to this week’s edition of the UK New Scientist magazine, “Europe is experiencing what may be its worst drought in 500 years, with river flows down by around a third on average.”

“The drought, which is likely to have been intensified by global warming, is having a serious effect on food production and river transport at a time when there is already a food crisis and soaring energy costs due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The drought and the heat are not only impacting agriculture, causing food scarcity and rising prices, but they are also impacting almost all other activities across the continent. Last summer, unfavourable weather conditions led to an approximately two-Gigawatt (GW) shortage of electricity as wind turbines stopped generating electricity.

Some countries like Germany, Holland, and the UK brought coal-fired power stations online to overcome the shortage that were close to being decommissioned to meet their goals of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Coal produces more carbon dioxide than gas and oil.

This summer, the situation is even worse, indicating that the world is doing little or nothing to combat climate change. rivers across Europe are drying up, many being at a third of normal water levels at this time of year. This has had an impact on hydraulic power generation and on industry that relies on river transport.

The Rhine, which runs from Switzerland through Germany’s industrial heartland before reaching the North Sea at Rotterdam in Holland, is becoming difficult for barges to navigate owing to low water levels. Germany’s industrial production has been lowered as a result, with some factories stopping production altogether as they cannot transport production inputs on the river or export their production through the Dutch port.

The halting of barge traffic on the Rhine in 2018 due to another drought cost the German industrial sector five billion euros in losses.

Hydropower generation in France, Spain, and Italy is down by more than 30 per cent this year owing to the lack of water. The reservoirs that gather water from the Alps and other mountains have been declining in level in recent years.

The rivers in France might not be as important for barge traffic as the Rhine or the Danube, but their water is essential for cooling the nuclear reactors used in the country’s nuclear power stations.

As river waters are getting warmer due to the high temperatures, some power stations have had to shut down since the reactors can no longer be effectively cooled. This has led to electricity shortages for the main French power provider EDF that provides electricity not only in France but also in Germany, the UK, and other European countries.

One UN climate researcher has reiterated that the temperature rises could reach an irreversible level soon. A rise of an average of 1.5 to two degrees Celsius over regular seasonal highs would be a red line that scientists have warned must not be breached. But Europe has already crossed this point, with more air pollution due to the drought and other major changes to the climate adding to an already vicious circle.

Unless the disastrous cycle of greater emissions giving rise to ever greater climate breakdown is broken, there will be little chance that humanity will manage to avert the changes resulting from the new climate patterns. Last year, countries agreed to do more to halt the increases in the Earth’s temperature at the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

This year, Egypt is hosting the COP27 Conference in the southern Sinai, and next year’s COP28 Conference will be hosted by the UAE, another Middle Eastern desert country. UN experts and other climate scientists warn that these two global conferences might be the last chance for the world to avert catastrophic climate change and spare the globe its effects.

The deserts of the Middle East might provide Europe and the world with one answer to the pressing problems of climate change through power generation from clean sources like wind and solar power or through green hydrogen.

But first the world needs to make the COP27 Conference a success by agreeing on urgent and decisive action on climate change.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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