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  • Jhanvi Mehta

Western Europe’s passiveness towards climate change: too little, too late?

As featured in Edition 41, available here.

By JHANVI MEHTA (3rd year - History and Politics - Leeds, United Kingdom)

A deadly heatwave in Western Europe has triggered intense wildfires, disrupted transportation and displaced thousands of people. More than five countries in Europe have declared states of emergency or red warnings as wildfires, fuelled by hot conditions, burn across France, Greece, Portugal and Spain. These events have occurred against the backdrop of renewed commitments to preserve the environment through COP26 and the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. Moreover, fears of a great climate backslide have been ushered in following an energy crisis facilitated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This article will defend the case of Western Europe not doing enough to tackle climate change.

Europeans have been aghast to know the EU has imported over 90 percent of its gas supplies, and with Russia providing over 40 percent of it (accounting for 27 percent of oil imports and 46 percent of coal imports to the EU). This reliance on fossil fuels signals Western Europe’s green betrayal against the continental goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and urgently questions whether Europe’s dangerous dependency on fossil fuels and autocratic states will hamper the ability to bring about their commitments to net zero emissions to fruition.

Climate change has amplified the heat on Europe’s accumulating catalogue of crises. After July, another heatwave flounced on France, Spain and Britain in early August. The European continent consequently faces a worsening drought, its worst in 500 years, which entails dire implications for food pricing, biodiversity and nature, and energy security. River flows have fallen by a third on average, seriously impacting food production and river transportation. This comes against the backdrop of the metastasising food crisis, and energy costs that have skyrocketed as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Furthermore, multiple forest fires have been seething across France since the start of summer, releasing a record amount of carbon emissions. This is the equivalent of Spain facing forest fires in mid-July that have been driven by global warming. The European Forest Fire Information System has estimated that July 2022 held the highest record for burnt area in France. Additionally, this summer, the EU’s Copernicus environment observation measure has stated that France has recorded the highest carbon emissions resulting from forest fires this year since initial records from 2003. As a result, the number of trees to absorb carbon dioxide have reduced, endangering vital ecosystems and creating high ozone pollution.

Whilst the IPCC has noted that technology can have an integral role in tackling global warming, the inherent issue is that 80 percent of global energy requirements today are derived from fossil fuels. Rather than focusing on cutting energy dependence on oil and gas, countries are reluctant to switch; persisting with their heavy dependence on fossil fuels from the US and the Middle East. Russian fossil fuels have been boycotted by many due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This raises the importance of fundamentally changing energy systems and policy that is often too focused on short-term profit, divorced from the long-term impacts on the environment.

Western Europe requires a green industrial policy, whereby the state pushes forward the development of specific technologies and sectors with a focus on clean energy. Countries in Western Europe have already established binding climate targets on a broad level, however clean energy is not explicitly favoured over fossil fuels. The risks of little action over the climate crisis outweigh the reliance of experimenting with electric forms of transportation over less efficient technology. An alarming development is EU member states have subsidised fossil fuels.

Prior to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the European Commission aimed to categorise fossil gas as a “sustainable” source of energy in its investment taxonomy. This move undermines the EU’s standing and credibility in providing global leadership in tackling climate action, and demeans the necessity to increase energy security in Western Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has posed a huge challenge to Western European energy systems with soaring fuel prices; this should act as an incentive to build energy efficiency measures and accelerate the process of decarbonisation, shifting away from reliance on imported fossil fuels.

The recent heatwave poses an opportunity for Europe to jolt itself into bringing about meaningful change on the climate front. Replacing dependency on fossil fuels from Russia with a reliance on fossil fuel supply from other nations is unsustainable if Western Europe is serious about slashing carbon emissions and achieving net zero targets. Decisive action is essential on energy and climate policy through switching to domestic renewable energy sources.

Image: Alisdare Hickson/ Flickr



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