Western Europe, a Climate Leader, Still Suffers From Global Warming

Western Europe has done more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the past three decades than any other region in the world.

It has vastly expanded solar and wind power. It has introduced carbon taxes and other policies to increase the cost of dirty energy. In all, the European Union has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by about 30 percent since 1990, much more than the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia or other affluent countries.

But Europe’s clean-energy progress has not protected 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 borders.”

Britain yesterday experienced its hottest temperatures on record, around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat wave is especially problematic because much of Britain is not designed to withstand high temperatures; the normal average high on a July day in London is in the low to mid-70s.

Many British homes not only lack air-conditioning but are built with materials that retain heat. Most parts of the London subway system lack air-conditioning, as well. On Monday, one airport had to halt flights for hours after the heat damaged a runway. To keep the aging Hammersmith Bridge from collapsing, workers wrapped parts of it in foil to prevent cracks from expanding.

In Paris, the temperature also exceeded 104 degrees yesterday, a high the city has reached on only two other days since the late 1800s. In southwestern France, firefighters battled wildfires for the eighth straight day. In Greece, dry conditions helped cause a wildfire north of Athens that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. Firefighters have also been battling blazes in Portugal and Spain.

It’s all a reminder of both the extreme dangers from climate change and the unjust burdens that it is causing.

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 have faced water shortages.

These same countries have produced only a small share of cumulative greenhouse gases since industrialization began: Those gases tend to come from electricity use, driving and other forms of economic output. Africa, for instance, has produced about 4 percent of historical emissions. (You can look up the numbers for the U.S., China and other countries in these charts by my colleagues Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer.)

Now Europe is becoming another example of climate change’s unfair burden, at least relative to other rich countries that are responsible for large shares of historical emissions. True, not all of Europe’s clean-energy policies have succeeded. But the shortcomings can sometimes obscure the reality that it has made more progress in reducing emissions than anywhere else. One reason: Conservative parties there tend to agree that climate change demands a response, in contrast to the Republican Party’s stance in the U.S.

Despite these reductions, Europe is turning into one of the world’s new climate hot spots.

Why? Slowing winds and weakening ocean currents in the region may both play a role. (If you want the details, Henry Fountain explains them.) Henry says that experts are still debating the causes. But scientists agree that Europe’s current heat wave would not be happening without human-caused climate change. “Global warming plays a role in every heat wave at this point,” he said.

Going forward, it remains unclear how much hotter Europe will become, partly because it depends on what actions the world takes to combat climate change. The U.S. seems to be pulling back from aggressive action, because of rulings by the Supreme Court as well as opposition to President Biden’s climate bill from Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

Whether Europe will continue its rapid shift toward clean energy has also become uncertain. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led the E.U. and Britain to look for energy sources other than Russian gas — and the replacements, like coal or liquefied gas, could end up being dirtier, notes Somini Sengupta, who anchors The Times’s Climate Forward newsletter.

The E.U. has promised to make up the difference and has enacted several new policies in recent weeks. One would accelerate the shift to electric cars by banning the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in 2035. The E.U. would also expand solar and wind power even more than previously planned.

If it keeps those policies in place, the E.U. will probably continue to lead the world in greenhouse gas reductions. “Fears of a big climate backslide by the European Union may be overblown,” John Ainger and Akshat Rathi of Bloomberg wrote last week.

Either way, it won’t be nearly enough to avoid terrible climate damage, as Europe is experiencing this week.

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