Environmental degradation and climate change, Russia's war against Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic all have the potential to trigger disasters in Europe. Wildfires in particular, are of massive concern, as they ravaged various European countries in an unprecedented manner during the summer of 2022. In light of this, the Council of the European Union has called for an EU-level proactive crisis response, which could help EU member states to better combine forces in combatting environmental and other disasters, including wildfires.
Europe went through an unprecedented summer of wildfires in 2022. France saw record levels of surface area ravaged by blazes of unusual intensity, speed and duration. Similarly, unseasonal heat reportedly sparked dozens of wildfires in Spain, which saw its worst summer of wildfires with 260.000 hectares destroyed by blazes. As temperatures continue to rise, the frontiers are in danger of being pushed North, with Germany and the Czech Republic particularly at risk.
While climate change increases the likelihood of wildfires, these in turn have significant knock-on effects for the climate. Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation programme, reported that carbon emissions from wildfires in the European Union and the United Kingdom in summer 2022 were the highest since 2007, largely driven by emissions from devastating wildfires in south-western France and the Iberian Peninsula. These greenhouse gas emissions further accelerate global warming, leading to a vicious circle between wildfires and climate change.
With the likelihood of wildfires only increasing in the future, this in turn increases the importance of well-coordinated disaster response mechanisms. Under the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, the formal mechanism for member states and other countries to ask for support, the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) manages the delivery of assistance to disaster-stricken countries. The ERCC allows countries to call for the assistance of all the member states in the agency when their own disaster response forces are overwhelmed. For example, during wildfires in Greece in the summer of 2021, a specialist ground forest firefighting team from France was deployed.
There are two main resourcing groups within the mechanism: the EU Civil Protection Pool, which has a wide range of emergency response equipment and teams, and rescEU, designed to be deployed in situations warranting an extremely urgent response, or where this an element of further insecurity present, such as a conflict. When it comes to forest fires, the rescEU reserve in 2022 consisted of 12 firefighting aircraft and one helicopter, loaned by member states including Croatia, France and Greece.
Although the ERCC allows member states to assist each other in responding to wildfires, the EU response to wildfires has been described as ‘good but insufficient’. In Greece and Sweden, firefighters were overwhelmed by rampant wildfires, despite assistance from various EU member states. This has led the European Commission to spend €170 million to reinforce the rescEU fleet with additional planes and helicopters, in the hope of strengthening the capacity to fight future wildfires.
The EU’s capability is set to further improve after the Council of the European Union called for a wider EU action with regards to disasters in a meeting on 28 November. The Council requested the Commission, the European External Action Service and the member states to shift from reactive crisis response to more proactive action, stressing the importance of effective disaster risk reduction (DRR), anticipatory action and risk-informed development.
The ERCC and wider Civil Protection Mechanism are directed by the EU Commission’s Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. It is currently a civilian-led response mechanism, including civilian rescue teams and firemen. However, as assets, resources and strategy may require military support from individual member states, this makes it a possible entry point for militaries, as they get increasingly involved in responses to climate change around the world.
What is for certain is that as temperatures are rising globally, an improved EU-level DRR mechanism, and an increase in the size of the rescEU fleet specifically, will help the member states to increase their cooperation on combatting a rising number of wildfires.