Heat is on Europe to cut gases as global warming wreaks havoc

For sun-lovers who crave a summer tan, last month’s announcement by the European Environment Agency that the EU had managed to stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) for the first time was an occasion for cheers. But does this mean that sunbathing is safer today than last year? Not exactly. According to the agency, the union has made good on its longstanding commitment to stabilize emissions of C02 – the main «greenhouse» gas responsible for man-made global climate change – at their 1990 level by 2000, but these levels are just 0.5 percent lower than a decade ago. Moreover, in its report released on April 29, the environmental agency stressed that EU emissions of C02 and other greenhouse gases rose between 1999 and 2000, with CO2 accounting for around 80 percent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In that year, CO2 emissions alone increased by 0.5 percent, while emissions of CO2 and the five other gases controlled by the Kyoto Protocol on climate change – including methane and nitrous oxide – together rose by 0.3 percent. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU is required to cut its combined emissions of the six gases to 8 percent below their 1990 level by the years 2008-2012. In 2000, total EU greenhouse gas emissions stood 3.5 percent below their 1990 level, almost half of the targeted levels. But, although progress has been achieved in controlling man-made greenhouse emissions in the Union, people still need a hat and a high-grade sunscreen if they wish to take a trip down to the beach. This is even truer of people living or vacationing in EU countries like Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy, which, according to the agency, are among those that are «overshooting their agreed share by a wide margin.» «Spain is furthest away from keeping to its share of the EU target: Its emissions in 2000 stood 33.7 percent higher than a decade earlier, more than double the 15-percent increase it is allowed between 1990 and 2008-2012,» the European Environment Agency notes. On the other hand, Germany, the largest EU emitter, has achieved the greatest emissions cut, recording a 19.1-percent decrease over a decade, not far from the targeted 21 percent that the country is obliged to achieve by 2008-2020. Greece’s poor record Greece is listed as a «negative contributor» to the EU trend, ranked along with Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland. According to the environmental agency, emissions in Greece in 2000 stood 21.2-percent higher than a decade ago, a deviation from its target, rated at 8.7 percent. As for CO2 emissions, Greece recorded a 23-percent increase from a decade ago, while it also failed to achieve the 2000 target of a 15-percent reduction in its emissions. Moreover, people in Greece and in other countries in recent years have noted that the sun’s rays at times become unbearable, an effect linked to the thinning of the ozone layer. Weather reports in daily newscasts during the summer have now included «sun exposure timetables,» advising people to limit their exposure to the sun even if they use sunscreen, as cases of skin cancer have surfaced in the country and abroad – particularly in places favored by tourists for their summer vacations. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in its report on «The Status of the Global Climate in 2001» declares that last year the global mean surface temperature was 0.42C above the 1961-1991 climatological mean, making it the second warmest year since global surface records began in 1861. This followed a year when the ozone hole reached its maximum deficit – a measure of the amount of ozone destroyed within the ozone hole – of 57 million tons by the second week of September 2000, an amount higher than all previous years, the WMO stresses. Although signs of recovery have been reported – in January 2002, the WMO reported that the Antarctic ozone hole for the year 2001 covered an area of 25 million square kilometers (15.5 million square miles), comparable to the 2000 record size of 28 million square kilometers (17.4 million square miles) – the devastation caused by temperature fluctuations worldwide are alarming. Weather extremes The pattern of above-average temperatures – 1-2C in Europe – that occurred last year was followed by severe flooding and extreme lows in parts of Europe. According to the WMO, extremes in Sweden in 2001 included record lows for the month of February in the province of Dalarna (-44C) and for the month of April in Kvikjokk in Lapland (-26C). However, the organization notes, the winter season was warmer than average for the country as a whole, as much as 0.7C above normal. Meanwhile, France recorded its sixth warmest year since 1949, while Denmark and Germany recorded the warmest October in more than 100 years of national records, with temperatures in Germany as much as 4C above average. In July, two weeks of heavy rains – the worst flooding to affect Poland since 1997 – caused flooding along the Vistula River, displacing 140,000 people from towns and villages in southern and southwestern Poland. Floodwaters were responsible for the deaths of 52 people in Poland and 39 in the Czech Republic. Also, Hungary was hit by severe flooding for the third year in a row, with the Tisza River reaching the 7.6-meter mark – the highest on record. The WMO declares that during the decade 1991-2000, «more than 90 percent of people killed by natural hazards lost their lives as a consequence of severe meteorological and hydrological events.» In Europe, the organization last year recorded a total of 664 disasters – only a fraction of the record 2,035 reported in Asia – with as many as 34,495 losing their lives. The total estimated cost of the damage due to these disasters in Europe last year came to $179.3 billion, the third highest after Asia ($403.5 bln) and the Americas ($212.9 bln).