From wildfires to disastrous floods across southern Europe, the summer of 2023 will be remembered by extreme weather. How prepared are we for such events and their impacts? Relentless heatwaves affecting millions of Europeans across the continent, wildfires and flash floods impacting many communities call for even more ambitious action to prepare a new reality while speeding up the transition towards sustainability.

Leena Ylä-Mononen
EEA Executive Director

This summer was the hottest summer on record globally and the fifth hottest for Europe. Wildfires in the EU burned over 468 000 hectares so far this year, many affecting tourist destinations in the south and hitting the local economy. After long periods of intense heat and drought, entire communities and their livelihoods were hard hit in a matter of hours in Rhodes and Corfu.

Nature was also impacted. More than 40% of the area burnt this year consisted of Natura 2000 areas, impacting habitats and species dependent on these ecosystems. The heatwaves coincided with torrential rains and flash floods in Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia and Türkiye, resulting in loss of life and substantial economic losses. Over the last 42 years, the economic losses and damages caused by extreme weather and climate conditions amounted to a total of at least EUR 560 billion,  with annual losses above EUR 50 billion in 2021 and 2022. We can expect similar loss estimates in 2023 as well.

Year after year, we are surprised by the increasing severity of these events and saddened by the extent of the losses they cause. But these extreme weather events should not take us by surprise anymore. Unfortunately, we are living through a climate scenario that scientists have been warning us about for decades.

A new reality: hotter, drier, wetter…

At the start of summer, we published the web product ‘Extreme summer weather in a changing climate: is Europe prepared?’, which takes a deep dive into the main summer weather extremes that have increasingly affected the European population, economy and nature. Users can explore interactive maps and charts for information on heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires, and climate-sensitive diseases like dengue fever. In addition to taking stock of the impacts of the past events, the product provides a future outlook based on the latest scientific knowledge.

The message is clear: summers are expected to bring more, stronger and longer heatwaves, more frequent and extreme flooding as well as more severe droughts and wildfires, and a rise in climate-sensitive diseases. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her State of the EU address this week about the European Green Deal, “This is the reality of a boiling planet”.

Europe is already taking measures to adapt to climate change, but our analysis highlights areas for urgent and additional action. We need to minimise the impacts of climate change on our society and economy and there are many challenges we need to address. How can we better protect the most vulnerable, like the elderly, from severe heatwaves? How can we prepare our cities – for flooding, heatwaves or drought?

We know that agriculture will need to adapt, too. How can we ensure that farming continues to provide food and stable income to farmers, while contributing to Europe’s sustainability goals? How can society prepare for this new reality?

Societal preparedness

Climate change impacts and societal preparedness levels vary significantly across Europe. The measures communities need to take must factor in the local challenges they face and the resources available to them. Knowledge will play a crucial role in helping Europe prepare. The European climate change adaptation platform Climate-ADAPT offers over 100 case studies and examples of potential adaptation options as well as tools that support adaptation planning.

The EEA supports adaptation policies and their implementation in Europe through a series of indicators and assessments, including the European Climate Risk Assessment, which we will publish early next year. It will assess current and future climate change impacts and risks relating to the environment, economy and wider society in Europe.

Adaptation measures need to go hand in hand with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically and quickly. These efforts need to be complemented by equally ambitious measures to tackle pollution, biodiversity loss and unsustainable resource use. And these measures need to be put in place in a just and fair way, making sure the most disadvantaged in our society are not left behind.

The European Green Deal offers a comprehensive and coherent policy framework for action on all these fronts. Implementing the Green Deal is critical to strengthen the overall societal resilience of Europe. And at the EEA, together with our network Eionet, we are fully committed to providing the data and knowledge needed to support the implementation of the European Green Deal.

Editorial published in the September issue of the EEA newsletter, No 03/2023.

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