Europe in a changing climate
Over the last 70 years, peace, prosperity, and freedom have spread across Europe. But today, the climate is changing. While flooding, storms, droughts, and heatwaves threaten the continent and its neighbours, Europe’s political class is facing an unprecedented storm of popular discontent, partly fuelled by the influx of migrants and the effects of globalization.
In response, some citizens want to pull up the drawbridges and put ‘our nation first’. Yet most of Europe’s fundamental challenges cannot be solved by individual nations — or even the continent — acting alone.
Instead, we can only succeed if we work together — across cities and nations, as well as in international fora — to safeguard the global commons, including the climate. The need to collaborate to meet these shared challenges is not a threat; instead, it offers enormous opportunities.
Climate challenges for Europe in a globalized world
Europe is closely connected to the rest of the world, so the impacts of climate change elsewhere — whether in Morocco, China, or Peru — will have repercussions for Europe. In our own interest, we need to prepare for and respond to these impacts.
Climate change disrupts the interconnected global economy
Extreme weather events can cause shortages in Europe’s supply of raw materials and products. Since many goods are now assembled across the world and specialized production hinges on just-in-time delivery, supply disruptions can endanger the global economy and make prices more volatile. In 2011, for example, a severe flood in Thailand disrupted the production of hard disk drives — 40 percent are made in the country — leading to a global shortage of these essential devices.
People move under extreme climate conditions
Floods and storms can destroy houses and harvests, and push people to move. But more gradual, less visible changes can also drive migration. Temperature increases in parts of the Middle East and North Africa could make these areas uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century, forcing residents to leave. Although most people will stay within their own country or region, some will move to Europe in search of better quality of life and new opportunities.
Protecting the climate to protect humankind
In the past, Europe emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases, but today, it is responsible for less than 10 percent of the world’s emissions. To protect the climate and shield ourselves from its impacts, we need a global solution — and Europe needs to work with its global partners.
Do we have too much or too little water in Europe - or both?
One of the busiest waterways in the world, the Rhine River and its numerous tributaries flow through nine European countries and provide drinking water for 30 million people. When the river flooded in 1993 and 1995 in Germany and the Netherlands, it demonstrated the immense destruction such events can cause. The costs of these disasters will only increase in the future: the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine estimates that an extreme flood could cause € 200 billion worth of damage.
In summer 2003, temperatures soared above 40°C as the hottest weather in 500 years struck Europe, killing more than 20,000 people. Forest fires broke out in many countries; in Portugal alone, fires destroyed forests the size of Luxembourg. According to climate predictions, summers as hot as 2003’s deadly heat wave could occur every other year by 2050.
Europe is home to many different peoples, languages, landscapes, and traditions. Moreover, the Iron Curtain left a stark economic divide between east and west. For example, the average income in Bulgaria is about 12 percent of what it is in the Netherlands. Yet, the continent’s dense cultural and historical diversity enriches life and ultimately provides a uniting thread. Our shared culture of conservation and intensive land cultivation has also spurred a strong drive to protect the environment and its natural resources.
Europe’s energy supply is also diverse. Overall, the poorer regions in southern and eastern Europe tend to have less affordable access to energy, and are home to most of the 54 million people in the EU who cannot keep their home warm in winter. Energy sources vary across the continent, as does the vulnerability to supply disruptions.
To protect our climate, we urgently need to move away from fossil fuels, particularly coal, which is the biggest pollutant. But coal production is still economically significant in some regions of Europe, so for the transition to be both just and politically viable, the people and businesses in these regions need new sources of income and employment — as well as time to adjust and other forms of support during this transformation.
Standing up for a united Europe: pro-Europe grassroots movements
As divisions increase, people are demanding more solidarity, but also more democracy. The pro-EU Pulse of Europe initiative, which is active in 21 European countries, shows that people are coming together to support a just and united Europe. Other pro-European movements include the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), which has 60,000 members in 100 local activist groups in 56 countries, as well as the youth movement The European Moment and the Belgian-based Stand Up For Europe. Such movements will ultimately improve our ability to collectively solve the fundamental challenges facing us today, including climate change.
European cooperation for a safe climate
Europe faces shared economic and social challenges — and shared climate risks. These challenges could lead to big opportunities, but only if Europe collaboratively addresses them. The EU already spends billions to improve solidarity among its members and help poorer regions develop.
Yet we cannot continue to conduct ‘business as usual’ without causing dangerous climate change. We must change how we produce and consume energy if we are going to protect our home: our mountains and meadows, our waters and wildlife, and the ecosystems that support our societies. The EU — its member states and its citizens — must seek to secure sustainable livelihoods across the continent, from big cities to small villages.
In 2019, the European Union launched its Green Deal: a comprehensive agenda to drive a massive shift towards sustainability. However, in order to win citizens’ trust, this necessary transition must leave no one behind. The EU needs to help create jobs, education, and training, while providing social protection and addressing air pollution and energy poverty.
Alone, the EU’s budget is too small to leverage such a shift. The Green Deal will need strong support from national governments and citizens, including stronger policy incentives and greener public investments. It will also require moving capital from polluting industries into sustainable businesses and technologies.
We will not be able to secure our homes and heritage unless sustainable transformation happens on a global scale. The Green Deal needs to go beyond reducing EU’s own carbon footprint and protecting its environment. With its unique capacities, Europe must help the rest of the world become more sustainable. In turn, this could open up great political, social, and commercial opportunities for the EU and increase its influence internationally.
Beyond Europe, the EU engages in climate diplomacy to support sustainable transitions around the world. The EU’s efforts were pivotal to reaching consensus on the ambitious Paris Agreement, which seeks to align the world’s nations in the fight against dangerous climate change.
With its Global Strategy released in 2016, the EU systematically integrated climate change into its foreign and security policy. Recognizing that climate change is a threat multiplier, it seeks to prevent and manage conflicts that are exacerbated by environmental changes in a holistic way.
To put this shared vision into practice, the EU has strengthened its efforts to prevent climate-related conflict and to build resilience to climatic changes. For example, its Conflict Early Warning System, which helps identify conflict risks around the world, includes climate change as one of the risk factors it monitors.
As the challenges we face — political instability, famine, forced migration, and violent conflicts — continue to grow, EU climate diplomacy is essential, not only to keep climate action and the Paris commitments on the political agenda, but also to sustain global peace and prosperity.
Can we go green and grow?
Moving towards a climate-compatible economy
The EU aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase the share of renewable energy, and improve energy efficiency. By taking collective action, the EU reduces the overall costs of climate policy and improves its effectiveness. Regional cooperation reduces the market distortions that can result from unilateral action at the national level, where industry lobbies can defeat regulation by calling it unfair or threatening to shut down or shift production.
Given the EU’s diversity, its climate action requires political compromises between EU institutions and member states, which do not always support the EU’s goal of being a global climate leader. To show leadership, the EU must strengthen its Emissions Trading System, which covers around 45 percent of the EU’s emissions, and increase its efforts to mainstream climate concerns into other areas, including agriculture and funding for less developed regions. In addition, it will have to nudge its member states into accelerating their national and local actions.
Highlights of climate action in Europe
Cars cause noise, air pollution, and traffic congestion while emitting climate - damaging greenhouse gases. Recognizing that bikes are a better option for city transport, Copenhagen wants to become the best city for cyclists in the world. The city, which has more than 100 public bike sharing stations, has built bike highways and bike bridges, and allows bikes on trains for free. Today, more than 60 percent of Copenhagen’s residents cycle to work or school every day.
After the destructive Rhine floods of 1993 and 1995, Switzerland, Germany, France, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands joined forces to reduce future damage. Today, the countries work together to provide early warning for floods, and they use retention areas and other infrastructure to reduce the peak level of floods and thus avoid the most severe damage. In addition, these countries have considerably increased retention volumes on the upper Rhine, reducing downstream flood risks.
Cities in Poland and Germany are partnering to clean their air and protect the climate. Many residents in the cities of Sztum, Poland, and Ritterhude, Germany, still have old heating systems and poorly insulated houses, leading to high energy bills and cold homes. Together, the two municipalities are developing pilot projects at district level to finance and implement renovations, which increase the well-being of the residents living in upgraded houses. These steps also improve the air quality for all of the town’s citizens while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.