Western Europe has done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any other region in the world over the past three decades.
It has vastly expanded solar and wind power. It has introduced carbon taxes and other policies to increase the cost of dirty energy. In total, the European Union has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by about 30 percent since 1990, far more than the US, Canada, Japan, Australia or other wealthy countries.
But Europe’s clean energy advances have failed to protect the continent from the growing ravages of global warming. “That’s the problem with CO2,” as my colleague Henry Fountain said, referring to carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. “It doesn’t respect the boundaries.”
Britain experienced its highest temperatures on record yesterday, around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat wave is especially problematic as much of Britain is not designed to withstand high temperatures; the normal average peak on a July day in London is in the low to mid 1970s.
Many British homes not only have no air conditioning, but are built with materials that retain heat. Most parts of the London Underground system also do not have air conditioning. On Monday, an airport had to suspend flights for hours after heat damaged a runway. To prevent the aging Hammersmith Bridge from collapsing, workers wrapped parts of it in foil to keep cracks from expanding.
In Paris yesterday, the temperature was also above 104 degrees, a maximum that the city has reached on just two other days since the late 1800s. In southwestern France, firefighters fought forest fires for the eighth day in a row. In Greece, dry conditions sparked a wildfire north of Athens that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Firefighters are also fighting fires in Portugal and Spain.
It’s all a reminder of both the extreme dangers of climate change and the unjust burdens it causes.
As experts have long noted, the biggest climate injustices involve low-income countries that will suffer deeply because they already tend to be hotter. The Horn of Africa is struggling with drought and South Africa, Chile and Brazil are struggling with water shortages.
These same countries have produced only a small fraction of the cumulative greenhouse gases since the dawn of industrialization: those gases mostly come from electricity consumption, driving and other forms of economic output. Africa, for example, has produced about 4 percent of historic emissions. (You can look up the numbers for the US, China, and other countries in these charts from my colleagues Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer.)
Now Europe is becoming yet another example of the unfair burden of climate change, at least when compared to other rich countries that are responsible for much of the historical emissions. It is true that not all European clean energy policies have succeeded. But its shortcomings can sometimes obscure the reality that it has made more progress in reducing emissions than anywhere else. One reason: There conservative parties agree that climate change requires a response, contrary to the Republican Party position in the US
Despite these reductions, Europe is turning into one of the world’s new climate hotspots.
Why? Decreasing winds and decreasing ocean currents in the region may both play a role. (If you want the details, Henry Fountain explains them.) Henry says experts are still debating the causes. But scientists agree that Europe’s current heat wave would not happen without human-induced climate change. “Global warming plays a role in every heat wave right now,” he said.
Russia and the future
Going forward, it remains unclear how much hotter Europe will get, partly because it depends on what actions the world takes to combat climate change. The US appears to be pulling back from aggressive action amid Supreme Court rulings and opposition to the climate bill from Republican President Biden and West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin.
Whether Europe will continue its rapid shift to clean energy has also become uncertain. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the EU and Britain to look for energy sources other than Russian gas — and the substitutions, such as coal or liquefied gas, could become dirtier, notes Somini Sengupta, who leads the Climate Forward- newsletter of The Times.
The EU has pledged to make up for the difference and has adopted several new policies in recent weeks. One would accelerate the shift to electric cars by banning the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. The EU would also expand solar and wind power even more than previously planned.
If it maintains this policy, the EU is likely to remain the world leader in reducing greenhouse gases. “The fears of a major climate setback by the European Union may be exaggerated,” Bloomberg’s John Ainger and Akshat Rathi wrote last week.
Either way, it won’t be nearly enough to prevent terrible climate damage, as Europe is experiencing this week.
More about the climate
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