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Europe: Environment Agency Says Continent Will Be Hit Hard by Freak Weather

Fierce summer storms have hit a number of European countries in recent days, with torrential rains, landslides, high winds, and lightning strikes. That follows forest fires that have ravaged woodlands in Southern Europe. But according to a new report from the European Environment Agency, this may be just the start. The report says global warming caused by greenhouse gases will, in future, mean more frequent and more costly storms, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather.

Prague, 20 August 2004 -- (RFE/RL) -- Extreme weather conditions brought turmoil to parts of Europe this week, just as a new environmental study warns that such occurrences likely will become more frequent -- and more deadly.

At least nine people died on 18 August in France, when a sudden change in weather conditions brought high winds and huge waves. In Britain, flash floods devastated a village and swept dozens of cars out to sea. In Denmark, a whole herd of cows was killed by lightning.

The 107-page report issued on 18 August by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen says we will be seeing more violent weather, and warns that climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions will impact societies and environments for "decades and centuries" to come.

Jacqueline McGlade, the EEA's executive director, told RFE/RL: "We have brought together indications from many different areas -- from agriculture, ice, snow, weather, and the marine environment -- and it is when we see all of these indicators put together [that] we see that the changes which might be set down as onetime events can no longer be seen in that way. They are systematic, and they have a planetary scale to them. And as a result, the major conclusion is that change is happening. It's happening quickly."

McGlade said all areas of the world are affected, but that Europe may feel the impact more than other regions. "Why Europe is particularly vulnerable is because of the intensity of its infrastructure. The way that we have become heavily urbanized means that, whereas before, if a storm hit, it maybe created some damage to some areas, but now, we have so much intensification of wealth, of infrastructure in rather small areas, that if a storm hits that area, the economic costs are extremely high."

McGlade said not enough is being done to combat global warming, and she called on the EU member states and other European countries to actively press ahead with developing greenhouse-gas-reduction strategies.

"The message to our policy-makers, our politicians and the legal people is that they now need to 'climate-proof' all policies. It is no longer an environmental issue on its own. Agriculture has to pay attention -- transport, energy, planning -- all aspects of the economy now really need to take into account that if we have storms that cause flooding like in the Danube last year -- it cost 20 billion euros -- Europe can't afford to go on having disastrous and catastrophic events like this," McGlade said.

On the positive side, she noted some progress already, with the Nordic countries in particular beginning to reduce their emissions. And she expresses some optimism about prospects for the Kyoto international climate-change protocol. The protocol commits signatories to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by an overall 8 percent by 2012. But Kyoto has been rejected by the United States, and Russia has hesitated to ratify it, putting Europe under pressure to abandon it.

A climate change expert with the Greenpeace environmental organization, Jean-Francois Fauconnier, told RFE/RL, "What is happening is that [European] industry is using the fact that Russia still has not ratified, and the United States will certainly not accept it -- at least until maybe there is a new [U.S.] president -- industry is using the argument that Europe is acting on its own and that we are running ahead too much."
"From an environmental point of view, unilateral action by the EU to achieve the Kyoto objectives can only reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases by 1 percent by 2012." - Munich

In Brussels, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) does, indeed, take issue with the viability of Kyoto as it now stands. UNICE says a continued European policy to "go it alone" will reduce Europe's economic competitiveness, make it less attractive for investment, and lead to job losses. Even environmentally, it's not sound, according to UNICE official Miriam Munich. "From an environmental point of view, unilateral action by the EU to achieve the Kyoto objectives can only reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases by 1 percent by 2012," she said.

UNICE says Europe must urgently review its climate-change policies because the European Union cannot combat climate change and its consequences on its own. It says much greater effort must go into designing a truly global regime, which can include the United States and Russia, as well as countries like China and India -- big developing countries which are not part of Kyoto.

Greenpeace's Fauconnier rejects that argument, saying that countries which act now to develop emission-cutting technologies will be in a better position competitively when action becomes inevitable. "We know that [eventually] in our industrialized countries, we will have to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by two-thirds or three-quarters by the end of this century. And that is a huge challenge, and Kyoto is a first step. We should be prepared for these reductions. It is possible, but it really means we will have to rethink the way we produce and use energy."