Greece: After fires, experts sound alarm over grim climate future

Dire forecasts of lower rainfall, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts mean Greece faces peril ahead.

Greece battled major wildfires last month as the country sweltered amid a prolonged heatwave that saw temperatures hit 45 degrees Celsius [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – Climate experts say last month’s wildfires that razed 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of Greek forest are only a small sampling of the environmental and economic devastation the country will face due to a warming planet this century.

The fires came in the wake of a heatwave, repeating a pattern seen in two other nationwide conflagrations in 2007 and 1987; and the phenomenon is worsening, geophysicist Christos Zerefos told Al Jazeera.

“This heatwave was the longest that ever struck our country,” he said. “In 1987 it lasted five days. In 2007 it was six days. And now 11 days. It keeps on increasing.”

The heatwave essentially ignited pine straw that sat thick on the floor of suburban woods, carried downhill by a strong storm the previous winter. That pine straw was full of pine resin, which is highly inflammable, said Zerefos. “The heatwave together with the resin formed a bomb that [was] ready to go off.”

Zerefos leads a team of experts in assessing the cost of climate change to Greece.

Their most recent report, compiled for the Bank of Greece in 2009, put the figure at over $821bn (704 billion euros) by 2100, twice the national debt and almost four times current annual gross domestic product (GDP).

That figure does not include the cost of relocating villages and rebuilding harbours due to rising sea levels. An update due to be published early next year will put that cost much higher, Zerefos says.

“The sector that will suffer most is agriculture … We’re going to have to replace what we cultivate with more drought-resistant plants. Farmers will have to manage their land more using more intelligent methods. Cultivable land will shrink and be replaced by so-called smart agriculture.”

‘No water’

This has already started happening in the plain of Thessaly, Greece’s breadbasket.

“There was a 10 percent drop in irrigated crops this year, meaning 2,500 to 3,000 hectares [6,180 to 7,400 acres], ascribed to lack of water and the cost of water,” said journalist Yiorgos Roustas, who covers agriculture for the Larissa-based newspaper Eleftheria.

The problem, he said, is that the Pineios river, which runs through Thessaly, dried up for the first time. Farms that draw water from irrigation reservoirs fed by the river sucked them dry.

“These [reservoirs] dried out because the heatwave made it necessary to water cotton and maize three or four times a week rather than two, but also because there was no water,” said Roustas.

The result is a substitution of crops, as Zerefos foresaw.

“People are moving from cotton, maize, alfalfa to wheat, barley and olives,” said Roustas.

Apart from the cost of lost economic activity, there is the cost of compensation from natural disasters such as the summer fires.

The government says it will help rebuild razed homes and businesses, undertake terracing work to prevent soil erosion in burned forests followed by reforestation, compensate farmers for lost revenue and equipment, and offer tax breaks.

Al Jazeera estimates that these promises alone amount to at least $147m (126 million euros), and that does not include the cost of compensation for lost fruit-bearing trees and farm animals, or the loss of tax revenue.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also said he will spend $350m (300 million euros) buying more firefighting equipment in the coming years.

It would appear that the $821bn bill has already started to come in.

Experts predict the cost of climate change to Greece could total more than $821bn by 2100 [File: Thodoris Nikolaou/AP]

Disaster foretold

The environmental literature for Greece and the Mediterranean makes for grim reading.

“Climate is changing in the Mediterranean Basin … faster than global trends,” said the first assessment on the region by MedECC, a group of Mediterranean experts on climate and environmental change, published last September.

Whereas average global temperatures have risen 1.1C above those of pre-industrial times, average temperatures across the Mediterranean are already 1.5C higher, the report says, and are projected to rise by an additional 3.8C to 6.5C by 2100 under current trends.

A 2017 study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre of scientists estimated that sea levels will rise by between 57cm and 81cm around Europe by 2100; but whereas northern Europe will see what used to be 100-year coastal flooding events every year, the Mediterranean will see them several times a year.

“Such increase in frequency of events that today are considered as exceptional will likely push existing coastal protection structures beyond their design limits,” the JRC report says.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its sixth assessment last month, forecasting lower rainfall, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts for the Mediterranean.

“The past two years are indicative [of the future],” said Dimitris Ibrahim, climate and energy policy officer at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Greece. “The pessimistic scenario is we might look back on them and say, ‘things were all right then’.”

Given Greece’s risk from climate change, the WWF believes the government has moved in the right direction. It has pledged to stop burning coal to produce electricity by 2028, earlier than much of the European Union. It has also surged ahead in installing renewable energy capacity.

In 2019, Greece ranked ninth in the world for renewable energy use, deriving 29 percent of its electricity from renewables.

It plans to spend 43 billion euros ($51bn) pushing renewables and natural gas this decade. By 2030, the renewables contribution to the electricity mix is expected to surpass 60 percent, exceeding EU targets.

But even this is not enough. Even if Greece meets its 2030 targets, renewables will account for 35 percent of gross final energy consumption, which includes heating, cooling and transport as well as electricity.

Greenhouse gas emissions are on track to fall by 42 percent in 2030, not the 55 percent mandated by the EU.

Ibrahim believes there is still low-hanging fruit in energy conservation.

“We have a national goal for 60,000 refurbishments by 2030 … We believe it should be at least 100,000. In Greece, we have four million homes, 2.7 million of which were built before 1980 and have absolutely no insulation … This should be front and centre.”

Calls for more ‘ambition’

Greece’s political elite appears not to understand the urgency of the problem, he said.

“We need better coordination within the government, better cooperation between parties and a more ambitious strategy.”

Yet the fires appear to have acted as a spur on Mitsotakis.

On September 6 he appointed former European Commissioner Christos Stylianides as the country’s first climate crisis minister to coordinate climate change response.

He has promised to unveil the country’s first comprehensive climate law before world leaders meet to set new environmental goals in Glasgow at the end of October.

And he has pledged to protect 30 percent of Greece’s land and maritime territory by 2030, in line with UN recommendations.

Even if Greece did everything perfectly, though, it remains at the mercy of other carbon emitters. The IPCC believes global temperature increases may be held at 1.4C by 2100 if countries hew to pledges of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But climate scientists and energy experts admit that stated policies are insufficient to achieve this.

In its latest World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency foresees an increase in emissions from 31.5 gigatonnes in 2020 to 36Gt by 2030.

Pondering this, Ibrahim said: “I have an eight-year-old child. I’m worried about how things will be when he graduates from university. I don’t worry about whether he’ll have a great job or a good salary. I worry about whether he can walk out into the street safely.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hold a joint news conference in ViennaGreece’s summer wildfires appear to have acted as a spur on prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis [File: Lisi Niesner/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera

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