The Green Brief: Floods, heat and fire

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Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

From deadly flooding that hit Germany and Belgium in July to the heatwaves and forest fires that set Southern Europe ablaze in August, this year has seen no shortage of climate-related disasters.

The 2021 summer season got off to an awful start with devastating floods in Belgium and Germany during July. The death toll is chilling: 184 people killed in Western Germany, 42 reported dead in Belgium’s Wallonia region.

Then came August and the wildfires. Italy, Portugal and the French Riviera were all successively hit, but Greece suffered the worst impact with terrifying scenes of tourists being evacuated by boat from the burning island of Evia.

In terms of extreme temperature, a new European record is suspected to have been set in Italy, with an all-time high of 48.8°C registered on Wednesday 11 August in Sicily (the figure still needs to be confirmed by the World Meteorological Organisation).

Nordic countries weren’t spared either. Finland’s national meteorological institute registered its hottest temperature for June since records began in 1844.

On a global level, July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in August.

In the aftermath, the blame game started. In Belgium, judges launched a manslaughter inquiry to determine whether the authorities were liable for the fatalities. In Greece, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was forced to apologise for the country’s failure to tackle the wildfires and later appointed a new minister in charge of recovering from natural disasters in a bid to defuse growing popular anger.

Yet the real culprit is well-known: climate change. The heavy rainfall that led to the deadly flooding across Germany and Belgium was nine times more likely because of the climate crisis, according to scientists at the World Weather Attribution group.

“We have to be faster in the fight against climate change,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to the flood-ravaged region of Germany.

“The climate crisis is knocking on the door of the entire planet,” Mitsotakis said, just hours after the publication of a UN report warning that global warming is dangerously close to being out of control.

Sadly, things are only going to worsen because of the carbon dioxide already accumulated in the atmosphere and greenhouse gases that continue to be emitted worldwide.

“This summer’s rollercoaster of extreme temperatures, dryness, flash floods and wildfires has been bad, but probably far better than what we may see in the future,” warned Professor Michael Norton, from the European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC). 

The economic costs are also likely to be dire. This year’s floods are estimated to have cost up to €2.55 billion in insured losses, but the total economic impact is expected to be much higher.

This will have financial consequences for Europe. Earlier this month, the German government established a reconstruction fund of €30 billion to cover damages from July’s floods. In Greece, the government authorised a €500 million relief package. And more aid is expected following the fires in France, Portugal and Italy.

For the EU countries concerned, the extra spending will inevitably put strain on public finances, which are already under scrutiny at EU level as part of the Stability and Growth Pact.

“Member states indeed certainly have to engage funds in order to deal with the consequences of such catastrophes,” said EU Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer in response to a question from EURACTIV about the economic costs of this year’s climate-related disasters. He pointed to the EU solidarity fund as a potential source of support for affected EU member states.

“We will present an updated economic forecast this autumn which will factor in the impact of these events,” added Daniel Ferrie, EU Commission spokesperson on financial stability.

– Frédéric Simon

 

Welcome back!

The Green Brief is back and ready to tackle … well, everything. The next few months are set to be exceptionally busy with the European Parliament and EU countries beginning to work through the ‘Fit for 55’ package of energy and climate legislation put forward in July.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is planning much more legislation, including on gas and the circular economy in the coming months.

Add a climate summit in November, some slightly important elections in Germany and just a dash of sustainable finance taxonomy and it’s set to be another climate-packed run up to the end of the year.

 

Top stories

 

This week’s stories

 

While we were away

August is an infamously quiet month in the Brussels bubble, but a few stories snuck through while we were away. Here are the key things to catch up on:

UN releases “terrifying” climate report. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded before the end of the century unless there are deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report released by the International Panel on Climate Change. It sparked concern around the globe, but EU climate chief Frans Timmermans offered some hope, saying the 3,500-page report proved “it’s not too late to stem the tide and prevent runaway climate change”. Read our story here.

Biodiversity summit faces another delay. The international summit on biodiversity, due to be held in China in October, was delayed for a third time due to COVID-19. While some online  meetings will go ahead in the autumn, the crucial negotiations on a global biodiversity framework for governments to meet by 2030 will be delayed until 2022. Read The Guardian’s story here.

Europe’s solar power generation reaches historic high. In June and July, solar power in the European Union rose to a record high, announced the independent climate think tank Ember in August. During this period, it accounted for 10% of the total electricity produced in the region. Read our story here.

And more below…

 

News from the capitals

EDINBURGH. Sturgeon’s Green ‘leap of faith’. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday described the coalition between her Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens as a “leap of faith” for both parties, as lawmakers endorsed the appointment of two Green ministers to her government. Read more.

BUCHAREST. Romanian government does not plan to cap energy prices. The Romanian government does not plan to cap energy prices but is looking for ways to compensate consumers amid complaints over price hikes both for electricity and natural gas – which rose by more than 20% compared with last year. Read more.

MADRID. Tons of dead fish wash up on Spain’s Mar Menor shores. Thousands of dead fish have washed up on the shores of Spain’s Mar Menor in an environmental disaster that has shocked residents and tourists visiting the area. Read the full story.

BERLIN. First German election debate shows divide on climate protection policy. Only four weeks ahead of the German election the three lead candidates met to debate the future of Europe’s biggest economy on Sunday (30 August). While the most contested issue in the debate was climate policy, there was one topic that was almost missing completely from the agenda: the EU. Read the full story.

ATHENS. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is expected to announce a government reshuffle on Monday amid growing public anger over wildfires that destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares and properties earlier this month. Read more.

 

News in brief

Bees round a honeypot. September will see the European Parliament reconvene and the tussles over the Fit for 55 package commence. The legislation was unveiled so close to the summer break that no work could go into divvying up the files in July, so now begins the political tug of war between committees over which takes the lead on each file and which legislators take up the key negotiation roles of rapporteur and shadow rapporteur.

The environment committee is likely to be landed with the most work and, therefore, have the most sway over the package. However, some other committees may manage to wrangle a file or two out of environment chair Pascal Canfin’s hands. Some files are likely to be trickier than others to allocate to a committee, like the carbon border adjustment mechanism file, which was drafted by the Commission directorate for economic and financial affairs (DG ECFIN) and straddles issues like the economy, trade and the environment. 

EURACTIV understands it is unlikely that draft reports will start appearing before the end of the year. You can keep an eye on the progress of the Fit for 55 package files on the European Parliament website here or, if you have better things to do than dig through EU institution websites, keep up to date with our coverage to see who wins out. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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100 days of illegal mining at Turów. The Polish coal mine on the Czech and German border has continued mining for 100 days despite being ordered to stop in May by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Turów mine in the south west of Poland is currently the subject of a court case between Poland and the Czech Republic, which alleges the mine is draining water supply.

On day 99 of the continued mining since the Court order, German Green MEP Anna Cavazzini organised a 30km bike tour around the mine to raise awareness of the situation. In a statement, she said, “Poland wants this climate killer to run until 2044. We demand a rethink. Now is the time to start the transition into a sustainable future and to create sustainable jobs in the region.

“A local resident told me the other day: the EU is our last hope! It is high time that the ECJ decides on the lawsuit launched by Czech Republic. And the EU Commission needs to step up its commitment to the protection of the rights of all European citizens.” (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Rapid transition to renewable energy poses new waste challenge. The swift shift to renewable energy means Europe faces the new challenge of recycling end of life parts from technology like solar panels and wind turbines, according to the European Environment Agency. These contain vital resources for the green transition, so policymakers need to focus on design that enables recycling and extender producer responsibility schemes to help recover these materials. Read the full report here.

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German companies agree to repatriate radioactive waste. German energy companies PreussenElektra, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall agreed to repatriate “all the German nuclear waste still stored at the Orano la Hague plant,” according to a statement by Orano, the French company responsible for the recycling of the nuclear waste. The contracts signed on 19 August are still subject to the formal agreement by the German and French governments. They will conclude the processing of 5,310 metric tons of fuel at the la Hague plant, as Germany is set to finalise its exit from nuclear power next year.

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German research into electrolyser cost reduction. In order to drop hydrogen electrolyser manufacturing costs by a quarter, the Fraunhofer institute in Germany aims to build a so-called reference factory to perform research on manufacturing processes which will be recreated virtually and then built in the technology building block of the factory. The project aims to provide better data for companies seeking to construct plants manufacturing electrolysers. The reference factory will be built by the institute and supported by the German government to the tune of €22 million via the “H2Giga” hydrogen project.

 

Opinions

 

Upcoming events

2 SEPTEMBER. New EU emissions trading system: what should change? Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss how the EU’s Emissions Trading System should evolve? Speakers include Beatriz Yordi Aguirre, Director of European and International Carbon Markets at the European Commission’s climate department and Marian-Jean Marinescu, a member of the energy committee in the European Parliament. Programme and registration here. (Supported by PGE)

7 SEPTEMBER. Forest restoration and tree-planting – what impact for climate change mitigation? Join Humberto Delgado Rosa, Director Natural Capital at the European Commission, Jytte Guteland from the European Parliament, Sven Kallen, Founder and Secretary, Life Terra Foundation and more to discuss the impact forest restoration and tree-planting can have on climate change mitigation. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Life Terra)

8 SEPTEMBER. Carbon removal strategy – is it needed and will it make a difference? Carbon removals have been put into the spotlight by Europe’s net emissions reduction targets. But how will policies work together to make sure carbon removals are sufficient to tackle the climate crisis? Join Christian Holzleitner, Head of Unit Land Use and Finance for Innovation at the European Commission’s climate department, Niels Fuglsang, an MEP in the energy committee of the European Parliament and more to discuss. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Equinor).

9 SEPTEMBER. Media partnership – the road to COP 26: what is the role of biofuels? Join Plínio Nastari, President/CEO of Datagro and President of the Brazilian Institute of Bioenergy & Bioeconomy (IBIO) and Emily Rees, UNICA (Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association), plus more to look at the role of biofuels in the path to decarbonisation. Programme and registration here. (Organised by: The Embassy of Brazil in London and Apex-Brasil)

21 SEPTEMBER. Fit for 55 on all fronts? Can Europe lead innovation in green maritime? Join Maria Spyraki, member of the energy committee in the European Parliament, Christophe Tytgat, Secretary General, Sea Europe, and Ukko Metsola, Director-General, Cruise Lines International Association Europe to discuss how the EU can decarbonise the maritime sector, and lead in green maritime innovation. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Cruise Lines International Association).

 

On our radar

21-23 SEPTEMBER: Informal meeting of transport and energy ministers. The ‘Fit for 55’ package will no doubt feature prominently during the meeting.

14 DECEMBER: Fit for 55 – part 2. Following the publication of its huge package of climate proposals in July, the European Commission is expected to table more energy-related files, including regulations on natural gas, and proposals on the circular economy.

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