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Winds of change could spell catastrophe for European winters


02 Mar 2006, Gland, Switzerland – Following a European winter of extreme cold and heavy snow, a WWF report says that there’s more risk of severe storms and extreme weather in future winters as a result of climate change unless CO2 emissions are reduced dramatically.

The report — Stormy Europe — summarizes recent scientific findings on future storm activity across western and central Europe. The countries included in the analysis are the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy.

The report shows that the UK would be worst affected by the deterioration in winter weather conditions, with the number of winter storms by the end of the century increasing by up to 25 per cent per year and top wind speeds increasing 8–16 per cent.

The global conservation organization says that the worsening winter weather would also be expected to bring with it major damage and financial losses. Each winter storm hitting the UK in the 1980s and 1990s cost between €200 million and €2 billion.

The Netherlands would see the next largest increase in future storm activity. Top wind speeds are likely to grow by 2–15 per cent. Scientists say that an increase of just 6 per cent could already accelerate average annual damage five-fold, costing the country €100 million.

“A dangerous wind of change is blowing across Europe,” says Jennifer Morgan, Director of WWF’s Global Climate Change Programme. “We have to take this threat seriously and stop climate pollution in order to protect people and their properties from devastating storms. If we don’t act soon our last chance will be blown away.”

France would see the third largest increase in winter storm activity, with the number of storms growing by up to 10–20 per cent by the end of the century. Most of the increase would be concentrated over the northern parts of the country, where top wind speeds could increase by up to 16 per cent, and the number of days with extremely high wind speeds could increase by up to 25–50 per cent.

The report notes that the power sector is the world’s biggest climate polluter, accounting for a major part of the climate changes and extreme weather experiences now and in the future. The global power sector is responsible for 37 per cent of man-made CO2 emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels like coal.

“Right now EU governments have the chance to drastically cut CO2 and clean up the power sector,” adds Morgan. “They must strengthen the CO2 limits under the Emissions Trading Scheme, or the storms are going to hit Europe harder than ever before.”


• The report examines three parameters: increase in the number of severe winter storms; increase in the number of days with extremely high wind speeds; and increase in maximum wind speeds. Severe winter storms are defined as the 5 per cent strongest cyclones which emerge in the northeast Atlantic and European region. Extremely high wind speeds are wind speeds which exceed the 99th percentile threshold — a threshold that is only exceeded by 1 per cent of all wind speed values.

• The report is based on research that examined the results from ensembles of four global climate models, four regional climate models and one emission scenario. The IPCC SRES A2 emissions scenario projects that atmospheric CO2 concentration will reach 771ppm by the year 2090, corresponding to a warming of the earth by 3–5°C above pre-industrial levels by the period 2071–2100. WWF notes that this goes far beyond the dangerous threshold of 2°C, which would already cause major impacts on people and nature.

• With a warmer atmosphere under global warming that can provide more energy to power storms at mid-latitudes, scientists project that winter storms will become stronger and more frequent, especially over western and central Europe. To date, the most costly insurance losses in Europe still belongs to the winter windstorms Daria, Lothar and Vivian, which hit Europe in the 1990s and caused over €12 billion in insured losses and nearly 300 fatalities in nine countries. A 20 per cent increase in frequency of the largest storms — as projected to be a consequence of global warming by the end of the century — is expected to raise associated financial losses by over €600 million a year. It is not only financial assets that are at stake. More frequent winter storms and other extreme weather events will also pose greater risks to human safety, especially to those who live in vulnerable areas, such as coastal lowlands and river basins.

• European governments have a vital role to play by strengthening pollution limits under the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). From January 2005, the ETS has placed CO2 limits on the chimney stacks of the utility and industrial sector. Companies that exceed their limits have to pay the penalty by being forced to buy unused pollution allowances from cleaner companies. Tough pollution limits combined with a powerful financial incentive to invest in cleaner, more efficient technologies would transform the power sector and automatically reduce its CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, EU governments agreed to weak limits and weak financial incentives. The ETS is currently under review, opening up an opportunity to strengthen the trading scheme and improve environmental effectiveness and economic efficiency.


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