Editorial by EEA Executive Director, published in the EEA Newsletter, no 3/2022, September 2022

It seems as if we have been living through one crisis after another — a pandemic, extreme heatwaves and drought due to climate change, inflation, war, and an energy crisis. This winter is likely to be marked by continued uncertainty, high volatility in global markets like energy and food, which will affect some countries and groups more than others. Tackling these crises, especially in the long term, requires steadfast policy commitment and investments in sustainability to strengthen our societies’ resilience.

Hans Bruyninckx
EEA Executive Director

The Covid-19 pandemic caused over half a million deaths in the EU since its onset and is not over. Thanks to extensive vaccination programmes and growing herd immunity, the pandemic slowed down and people’s health is better protected, but more than 1.000.000 new cases were recorded just in the last week. With winter and flu season approaching, we might face other variants and a rise in cases.

The pandemic was one of the triggers of economic uncertainty and vulnerability, putting stress on public finance and leading to policy reprioritisation. The situation was further aggravated by the war in Ukraine, which generated immense human suffering on the ground but also added to economic woes. At the end of August, the annual inflation rate in the euro area was estimated to be 9.1%. Rise in energy prices, a component of the overall inflation calculation, was over 38%. This high inflation is expected to come with stagnation in the economy, which had been on the rebound after the pandemic. Incomes have not kept up with inflation, which will continue to erode purchasing power in Europe and worldwide.

Summer 2022: extreme heat, drought and forest fires

Over the summer, it was the climate crisis that dominated the headlines. Science has been sending strong signals for decades that our climate is changing and that it will impact all aspects of our lives. For millions of Europeans, climate change has ceased to be a hypothetical scenario of potential impacts in the future; this summer it became a daily reality. Large parts of Europe suffered intense heat waves, going over 40 °C in many places.

The average temperatures in Europe this summer were the highest on record. The extreme heat also led to increased drought risks. August 2022 was generally much drier than average in much of western and parts of eastern Europe. In fact, many parts of Europe have seen below average precipitation for several years in a row now. Over most of Scandinavia and parts of southern and south-eastern Europe, however, it was a wetter than usual summer. Yet, this climate uncertainty and volatility did not change the fact that at the end of August 2022 nearly two-thirds of Europe is threatened by drought — likely to be ‘the worst for at least 500 years’ — according to a recent assessment by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.

Extreme heat and reduced soil moisture increase the risk of forest fires. So far this year, a record 700,000 hectares have been burnt in forest fires in the EU. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, Spain is the most heavily impacted so far with more than 283,000 hectares burned (corresponding to an area slightly larger than Luxembourg), followed by Romania (150,735 ha), Portugal (86,631 ha), France (62,102 ha) and Italy (42,835 ha).

These climate impacts appear against the backdrop of a wider biodiversity crisis, caused by over exploitation, ecosystem degradation, pollution, and increasingly exacerbated by climate change. From soil to marine habitats, many ecosystems are at risk and many species a threatened by extinction. Environmental degradation impacts our health and well-being as well as our ability to cope with climate change.

These crises are global and interlinked. They are the consequences of unsustainable systems of production and consumption in a globalised economy. More than 6.5 million have lost their lives to Covid-19 so far. Extreme heat hit the Indian subcontinent this summer. One third of Pakistan is flooded. Extreme global temperatures triggered rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers and the resulting floods displaced 32 million Pakistanis, who are in urgent need of shelter, food and medicine. The scale of the devastation seen in Pakistan or the severity of the typhoon in South Korea or the ongoing wildfires and drought in California exceeded projections.

The impacts of the floods in Pakistan will be felt across the globe. Pakistan is a major producer and consumer of rice — one of the main staples in the global food market, which is already under strain because of the war in Ukraine. Food prices and markets are volatile, facing potential disruptions in supply chains. Droughts in Europe are likely to further affect prices, exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis.

War in Ukraine and energy crisis

The war in Ukraine also displaced millions, caused loss of life, environmental pollution and destruction of key infrastructure. It is a humanitarian crisis, which will take years if not decades to recover from. The war also triggered economic and energy crises in Europe. In response to the Russian aggression, the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia, placing fossil fuel imports from Russia under scrutiny.

For many EU Member States, Russia has been the main supplier of energy but the European Commission and Member States are now looking to reduce this dependence. In the beginning of September, Russian cut off the gas supplied through the North Stream 1 pipeline, which before the war supplied almost 40% of the natural gas imports to the EU.

The current energy crisis in Europe is twofold: Energy prices have risen dramatically and Europe is now faced with a limited supply for the coming winter months. Many countries in Europe have started putting in place urgent measures to reduce consumption, ensure energy security and prevent waste, as well as to limit the impact of rising energy bills on households.

Sustainability is the only viable way forward

This picture of multiple, simultaneous crises is a complex and challenging one we have not seen before. As in all crises, some countries and communities will be affected more than others. Many households in Europe and across the planet are worried about their ability to meet basic needs like food and heating. We are vulnerable.

Our natural systems, health and economy are also vulnerable. Most global crises point to a single root cause: the unsustainable use of our planet’s resources.

But the EU and others have pointed to a way to tackle this root cause through action on climate and the environment.

With the European Green Deal, the EU has set ambitious goals to tackle the causes of these crises — transforming our energy systems, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, investing in clean, renewable energy sources, restoring nature, strengthening circularity in our economy — while ensuring a just transition where we support those most affected.

The transition needed will not be easy. It will take time and money. But, with these multiple crises impacting us, be it energy shortages, extreme weather events or rising inflation, we have no choice but to act, and act with urgency. And our actions, decisions and policies should strive to deliver a sustainable future. Inaction is increasingly irresponsible, more costly than action, and ethically unacceptable.

The environmental, economic and social vulnerabilities and impacts of our current economic model have been well studied and documented. Scientific models and analyses gave us a good idea of where we are heading sometimes decades ago. What we are witnessing is neither unexpected, nor exceptional. We are now at a point when it is no longer about trying to predict the future, but about using all available knowledge to shape it in a fundamentally sustainable direction.

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