Committee on Environment, Public health and Food Safety (ENVI)

Sink or swim: Highlighting the correlation between air pollution and extreme weather phenomena, the severe floodings experienced in Western Europe in 2021 are a natural consequence of the 2.54 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide the EU emits annually. What steps should the EU take to prepare for more frequent flooding?

By Alina Akural (FI) and Storm Kamerbeek (NL)


Flooding, the phenomenon of water overflowing due to extreme rainfall, is becoming more frequent and intense in Europe. As the temperature of the earth rises due to climate change, so does the number of catastrophic floods, with a recent study finding that intense rain events are now up to nine times more likely in western Europe as a result of global warming. Because warmer air holds more moisture, the rainfall experienced gets heavier as the temperature rises. Even in Europe, flooding annually leads to loss in human lives and destruction of infrastructure, and caused a loss of EUR 52 billion between 1998 and 2009.

A recent example of the intensifying extreme weather phenomena in Europe is the record breaking floods experienced in the beginning of July 2021. In Western Europe storms dropped up to 15 centimetres of rain in 24 hours, with Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands being worst affected. In these recent floods and the landslides they triggered, over 220 people died with houses and cars being demolished and washed away. As severe flooding is becoming more frequent in Europe, it is crucial to take measures to prevent losses like seen last summer.

Number of reported floods between 1980 and 2010

Key Actors and Measures

The European Commission 

The Commission is the EU body which proposes and enforces legislation. Regarding water management and flooding, the Commission has created directives such as the EU Floods Directive and the Water Framework Directive. The Water Framework Directive focuses on the protection of inland bodies of water and their sustainability, aiming to ease the effects of floods on the environment. The EU Floods Directive works towards better flood risk management by requiring Member States to assess the flood risk of all water courses and coast lines, and map the vulnerable areas. Additionally, it requires Member States to take concrete action to reduce the risk of floods. Furthermore, the Commission has information networks, such as the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), which aims to support the preparation for major flood events throughout Europe by monitoring, forecasting, and warning about flood risks. In regards to climate change, the European Green Deal aims to decrease greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030, and the Clean Air Program aims to improve Europe’s air quality by 2030. 

The European Environment Agency (EEA)

The EEA is the agency of the EU which provides independent data and information on the environment as well as the relevant EU policies. The EEA publishes regular scientific reports for example on the impacts of the recent natural disasters, including floods. It also works together with national environmental agencies to coordinate information. The EEA aims to help both policymakers and the general public be more informed on environmental topics, such as air pollution and flooding. 

The International River Basin Committees

These Committees are independent bodies established by neighbouring countries on European rivers, such as Elbe river and Rhine river, which aim to ensure coordinated river basin management and flood protection plans in the area. The International River Basin Committees concentrate on the protection of rivers, analysing the risk of flooding and reducing the damage caused by flooding in the multinational rivers of Europe. These committees have working and expert groups, who meet and discuss approaches in annual meetings.

Member States

In addition to EU wide legislation, Member States can have national laws regarding environmental topics, such as air pollution and flooding, due to these topics being shared competences of the EU. Therefore, taking the EU Floods Directive as an example, although the Commission requires Member States to create measures in areas with flood risks, the implementation is up to Member States. Therefore, Member States have freedom and differences between each other regarding flood management actions. An example of national flood risk management is the Netherlands’ Delta Project, which aims to achieve better control of rivers in the Netherlands  with risk of flooding by infrastructure such as dams and barriers.

Key words and Core Concepts

  • Air pollution: Polluted air refers to the air condition in which damaging particles, such as exhaust fumes, are released that modify our atmosphere. According to the EEA, air pollution causes the death of over 300,000 people per year. The WHO has recommended a maximum annual air pollution level to help fight climate change and protect global health, yet this is often exceeded

Exposure of air pollution in the EU

Results CO2 analysis worldwide

  • Global warming: Global warming is the long-term heating of the Earth’s climate system. Global warming is part of the bigger process of climate change. In the future global warming will get worse, which will increase global temperatures and affect our lives negatively. The world is trying to keep the global warming between 1.5°C and 2°C. The Sustainable Development Goals and the European Green Deal are trying to meet that threshold. The Carbon Brief predicts that the temperature rise of 2°C will cause the Rhine to be 39% more likely to experience extreme high flows. Additionally, the frequency of rainfall will increase by 45% across Northern Europe.

Extreme weather events in Europe since 1980

Key issues and conflicts  

Global warming

One of the main issues with flooding is that its frequency and intensity is set to increase in the future. Flooding will become an important topic because it will influence more and more people’s lives. The Commission predicts that the global temperature will rise which will increase the sea level by melting ice and increasing rainfall. This is caused by global warming which is worsened by air pollution and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Global warming/climate change and extreme weather, like flooding, have a strong correlation. The relevance of flooding was recently highlighted due to some heavy flooding in Europe in the summer of 2021The EU is already focusing on climate change and global warming. However, the SDG’s, which also focuses on many different areas of the climate, does not strongly highlight the concerns about flooding events. This results in a lack of awareness of flooding. 

Sustainable vs practical

The population of Europe is growing, and more housing is needed to meet this demand. Many Member States such as the Netherlands and Germany are currently facing a housing shortage. This is also seen furthermore through Europe.  New houses are built, and need to be built fast. A regular house consists of 16.4% cement, which is an ingredient in concrete. Concrete is cheap and a fast building material, but far from sustainable. The manufacturing of concrete produces high levels of CO2 and pollutes the air. On top of that, concrete prevents water from being absorbed by the ground. Unabsorbed water then flows to the sewer system and with high rain intensity can cause potential flooding, putting areas near rivers or at low lying areas at risk. The balance between keeping up with the housing demand and choosing sustainable options is hard.

Flash floods vs river flooding

There are different types of flooding, such as flash floods and river flooding. A flash flood is a flood caused by heavy or excessive rainfall in a short period of time, generally less than 6 hours. Flash floods account for an average of 70% of the total number of flood-related deaths in Europe. Due to the sudden and fast nature of the flash floods they are difficult to analyse. River flooding is more common for larger rivers and refers to the overflow of water onto normally dry land. A problem that arises with these different types of flooding is that they both are caused by different things and need to be dealt with differently. They both, however, have been increased in frequency and intensity by the effects of global warming. Despite the increasing frequency of floods in Europe, the countries below 60°N have experienced a strong increase in flood magnitudes. Countries such as Germany and France lay in this area. While above the 60°N mark, there is a relatively strong decrease in flood magnitude. Most of these countries are Scandinavian, such as Finland.

Key Questions

  • What key factors are causing flooding to intensify?
  • What can or should the EU do to help minimise the effects of floods?
  • In which ways could Member States prepare more efficiently for floods?
  • Keeping in mind the growing need for housing, how can the necessary sustainability of infrastructure be reached? 
  • What further measures should the EU take to minimise the air pollutants produced?

Things to look at