EU in the midst of extreme heat waves

22 July 2022

Europe is currently hit by a heat wave with life-threatening temperatures. It has been raging across the Mediterranean and much of Western Europe, with Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and the UK, seeing extended droughts, devastating forest fires, and public infrastructure damaged.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre warned this week that 46% of the EU’s territory is at high risk of drought, with rivers lacking water and an alert level of 11%. In Belgium, public transport has been limited as it is feared that the heat could cause the rails to expand so much that, in the worst case, it could lead to accidents. In the UK, Network Rail said that, due to the heat it now had an additional 9.000km of rail as each kilometer had expanded by some 30cm. 

In France and Spain, the extremely dry weather has created optimal conditions for wildfires, and tens of thousands of people have had to leave endangered areas this summer. These forest fires, posing a significant risk to both Europe and beyond, damage not only the woodlands but also put ecosystems at high risk of devastation. Such fires have been the cause of both ruined protected sites and ravaged forests across the EU. So far, more than 1.700 people have died as a result of the heatwave in Portugal and Spain alone. 

After last year’s lessons learned, the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre is finding itself in the midst of another summer of extreme weather challenges. Before the heat wave arrived to Europe, the Commission had already been planning to coordinate and fund the deployment of firefighting planes and helicopters, ready to support national efforts. Now, the Commission aims to invest in more firefighting aircrafts to confront the increased risk of wildfires across Europe. While the EU plans to fully finance these aircrafts, they will be bought by Member States.

Speaking on taking action, Janez Lenarčič, the Crisis Management Commissioner, has said that “climate adaptation, disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness are paramount.” This week, he addressed the French Senate on the on-going crisis of front workers at risk, highlighting on Twitter the importance of European coordination as well as EU solidarity. 

However, the urgency of the climate crisis seems to have been toppled by more imperative short-term crises, such as the EU gas shortage caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the current increase in cost of living. Commission Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, has urged Environment and Energy Ministers to aim for a rapid agreement on the Commission’s Fit for 55 climate package, which may seem like wishful thinking due to the absence of any mentioning of climate change by the Czech Presidency of the Council.

One thing is for sure: The summer of 2022 will go down in history due to this extensive heat wave, which clearly shows that the climate crisis is very much unfolding in real time. As long as the Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm, the EU can expect to see more heat waves in the future.