Extreme Weather Events Cost Europe Half a Trillion Euros, Tens of Thousands of Lives in Last 40 Years

Destructive flooding in Germany
A man walks across a temporary bridge in the wine village of Rech near Dernau on the river Ahr, western Germany, on July 30, 2021, after heavy rain and floods destroyed bridges, roads, railways, and homes. BERND LAUTER / AFP via Getty Images

Extreme weather events like storms, heat waves and floods are expected to increase as the climate crisis intensifies, but they have already cost Europe a significant amount in both lives and money. 

A new analysis from the European Environment Agency (EEA) found that extreme weather events over the last 40 years had claimed 85,000 to 145,000 lives and resulted in economic losses of nearly half a trillion euros. 

“These events, which are expected to increase due to climate change, are already causing substantial economic losses,” EEA wrote in a statement about the report. “Monitoring the impact of such events is important to inform policy makers so that they can improve climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures to minimise damage and loss of human life.”  

The report looked at extreme weather events from 1980 to 2020 and found that they had a combined cost of between 450 and 520 billion in 2020 Euros. However, it tended to be the case that large events had an outsized impact, with three percent of events accounting for 60 percent of losses. 

Flooding events cost the most economically, representing 44 percent of losses, according to Euronews. Meanwhile, heat waves were the deadliest, claiming 85 percent of lives, EEA said.

One heat wave was particularly devastating: the 2003 heat wave that was alone responsible for 50 to 75 percent of fatalities. However, this example also shows the importance of adaptations, since subsequent heat waves did not claim nearly as many lives as policy makers learned from the disaster. 

On a country-by-country level, Germany saw the highest total damages, followed by France and Italy. The highest losses per capita were in Switzerland, Slovenia and France.

The briefing doesn’t necessarily claim that all of the losses it describes were caused by the climate crisis. 

“All the disasters that we describe as weather- and climate-related are influenced by climatic conditions. But that does not mean that they are all influenced by climate change,” the EEA’s Wouter Vanneuville told Euronews. 

Rather, understanding the impact of past extreme weather events can help prepare for the future. 

Worldwide, the number of extreme weather events has increased in the last 50 years, the World Meteorological Organization has concluded. These events have caused more property damage but fewer deaths over time. The European data, however, did not show a clear increase in losses over time. 

This is partly because most of the damage was caused by so few events, The Guardian reported, and partly because adaptations do make a difference, as the case of the 2003 heat wave demonstrates. 

“The reason we don’t see a trend is not that climate change is not real, but because a lot of actions are going on against climate change. More and more countries are implementing adaptation strategies,” Vanneuville told The Guardian.

And these strategies will need to persist even if emissions are reduced in time to limit the worst impacts of global warming. 

“Even if we reach net zero emissions before 2050, adaptation will still be needed to keep the impacts limited,” Vanneuville told The Guardian.

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