Weather and Climate Disasters in Europe
A look at trends since 1980
Europe experiences fewer weather and climate extremes than North America or Asia, but the continent still can see large economic losses. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA) Europe averaged about €15 billion in losses annually over the decade ending in 2020. In this post I share data on trends in economic losses from weather and climate extremes across Europe from 1980 to 2020.
The figure below shows the proportion of weather and climate-related catastrophe losses by type of phenomena in European Economic Area countries for two datasets — Munich Re’s NatCatService and the European Environment Agency’s CATDAT.
The figure shows that storms and floods are responsible for more than 75% of losses in each dataset. Heat waves have large human impacts in Europe and are increasing in frequency due to human-caused climate change. As the figures above show, heatwaves are responsible for only a small proportion of disaster losses.
There are some significant differences between the Munich Re and EEA datasets, as you can see in the figure below, which shows aggregate differences by country over 1980 to 2020.
The largest differences are for France, Italy and Spain — due apparently to how the EEA monetizes casualties associated with heat waves, as compared to the Munich Re tabulation, which does not consider loss of life.2 The EEA warns, “No coherent mechanism is currently in place for countries to report losses to the European Commission or the EEA.”
Over the 41 years annual losses increased from just under €10 billion in 1980 to just over €15 billion in 2022. As readers of THB know well, looking at aggregate losses over time can mislead since exposure and vulnerability change significantly. Consider that the GDP of the EU almost doubled from 1980 to 2021, in constant Euros.
The figure below shows aggregate losses as a proportion of GDP.
As a proportion of GDP, losses decreased from just under 0.15% of EU GDP to about 0.10%. Given uncertainties in the data, it is more accurate to conclude that losses have not increased over this period, which is similar to trends in other rich parts of the world. The biggest decreases in losses as a proportion of GDP are in lower income countries, and the overall global trend is down.
The right panel of the figure below further illustrate these dynamics (from a 2023 report of the European Central Bank and European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority). The figure shows that European countries with higher per capita GDP have lower annual average climate-related disaster damages as a proportion of national GDP.
Richer countries have less proportional weather and climate impact, even as aggregate losses increase.
Unfortunately, the EEA time series shared above ends in 2020. In 2021, Europe saw significant flooding that resulted in €46 billion in losses.4 Europe also saw extensive wildfire activity in 2022 and in 2023, Greece experienced the single largest wildfire in the EU since at least 2003. However, it is not possible to infer economic damages from wildfires as a function of wildfire emissions or spatial extent. Munich Re observes: “Wildfires in Europe tend to be nowhere near as destructive as those in the USA.“
Despite existing recommendations from the European Commission and other international organisations, there is currently no mechanism in place in most EU Member States to collect, assess or report economic losses from weather and climate-related extreme events. Specialist loss datasets provide valuable information on economic losses, but important gaps exist and are exacerbated by the changing baseline for climate-related impacts.
What can we conclude based on the data that is available?
There is presently no evidence to suggest that a climate change signal can be detected in European weather and climate-related economic loss data. As always, if you want to look for signals of changes in extreme events over many decades, look at weather and climate data, not economic data.
The lack of robust, legitimate, readily-available data on European weather and climate-related losses can make it difficult to place disasters in Europe into a longer-term context. There is however a deep literature on trends in European storms, floods, drought and temperature extremes. I’ve got that topic on the list for a future post.
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Note that in this post there are two EEAs — the European Environmental Agency (EEA) and the European Economic Area. I’ll use EEA for the former and spell out the latter to avoid confusion.
Last summer, I gave Munich Re a green light as the head of the class (along with Swiss Re) for the quality of its disaster loss data. The EEA was not included in my review last summer, but they’d get a yellow light.
The EEA has published another time series that monetizes fatalities related to extreme events and includes those estimates in economic loss tabulations. My longstanding approach is to examine direct economic damage separately from loss of life. Each are important, but should be considered separately in these type of analyses.
In preparing this post I noticed that the EEA in 2020, 2022 and 2023 published different time series for weather and climate-related disasters with no explanations given for the differences or access provided to the original data — suggesting further uncertainties. Another area for improvement.