Tag Archives: Europe

Can the Ukraine war finally convince Europe to fully embrace renewables?

For some time now, EU governments have been pushing for natural gas and nuclear energy as an essential part of the energy transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuels like coal and oil. But since Ukraine was invaded, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has triggered a sudden push towards energy independence, mainly via renewables. It’s increasingly looking like Putin’s invasion may succeed in pushing Europe towards renewable energy.

Image credit: Pixabay.

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said renewable energy is “crucial” for the EU’s energy security and Finance Minister Christian Lindner called for renewables “freedom energies.” Meanwhile, in France, Barbara Pompili, Minister for Ecological Transition, said that ending the dependency on fossil fuels, especially Russian ones, is essential.

In response, the Stand with Ukraine coalition, which groups hundreds of organizations including environmental groups like Greenpeace, said a ban on Russian energy imports would step one in a path to end fossil fuel production. They called for “bold steps” towards global decarbonization and for a transition to “clean and safe” renewables.

The EU imported 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia in 2021, almost half (45%) of its gas imports and nearly 40% of the total amount used, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the war has largely disrupted this. Now, the European Commission is expected to present an updated energy strategy, which will likely give renewables a larger role.

The race to end this Russian dependence will likely require boosting imports from countries like the US and Qatar in the short term, and will likely lead to more domestic fossil fuel production. However, this doesn’t have to be the path ahead, climate experts argue, suggesting energy independence via clean energy such as solar and wind. The most likely option is a mixture between the two.

No more illusions

Europe has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, reaching net zero emissions by 2050. According to preliminary data, EU emissions dropped 10% from 2019 to 2020 – strongly related to the Covid-19 pandemic. By comparison, EU emissions declined 4% from 2018 to 2019. Despite being one of the more ambitious climate pledges around, it’s still nowhere near what is necessary if we want to avoid the worst of climate change effects.

If Europe wants to rid itself of Russian fossil fuels, it will need some sources oil and gas — but focusing on renewabls is the smart long-term bet, researchers emphasize.

The argument that Europe could limit its dependence on Russian gas by focusing on local fossil fuel sources and importing liquid natural gas from the US is neither realistic nor cost-effective, according to the think tank Carbon Tracker. It would require decades to build new gas decades and source local deposits, meaning price pressures won’t be solved right away.

By contrast, solar and wind energy sources can be significantly scaled up as part of existing decarbonization policies. This would be more cost-effective because of the large drop in renewable energy prices. The think tank Wuppertal Institute released a study this week showing how heating in the EU could run completely on renewables by 2013 thanks to electric heat pumps.

Meanwhile, the IEA came up with a road map to help deal Europe in its energy transition. The plan would reduce the bloc’s dependence on Russian natural gas by one-third in just one year while delivering on the bloc’s climate pledges. It’s a collection of actions designed to diversify the energy supply, focused on renewables.

“Nobody is under any illusions anymore. Russia’s use of its natural gas resources as an economic and political weapon show Europe needs to act quickly to be ready to face considerable uncertainty over Russian gas supplies next winter,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a written statement announcing the plan.

The recommendations include no renewing gas supply contracts with Russia, which are due to expire at the end of the year, increasing biogas and biomethane supply, storing more gas to have a buffer of security, accelerating the deployment of renewables, protecting vulnerable customers, and improving the energy grid reliability and flexibility.

Can’t cope with the urban heat? More trees could save the day

When it comes to temperatures, there’s a big gap between tree-rich and tree-less green spaces. Researchers studying data from Europe found that areas with an abundance of trees are two to four times cooler than those without them. With two-third of the population in Europe living in urban areas, it might be about time to plant a few extra trees.

Image credit: Flickr / Colin.

From preventing erosion to filtering the air we breathe, trees provide a large range of environmental services – including regulating urban temperatures. They cool the air through a process known as transpiration cooling and also reduce the amount of sunlight that hits buildings and pavement, lowering the amount of energy absorbed into the air. 

But these benefits can be difficult to find in big cities with a lot of concrete instead of green areas filled with trees. This is because concrete and asphalt act as heat magnets, producing the so-called urban heat island effect. Paved surfaces also block plants and trees from breathing properly, increasing the chances of high temperatures in cities. 

It’s most common for researchers to study temperature reductions by urban trees for a specific city or small region. But this makes a comparison between regions sometimes difficult, as each study in each city follows a different methodology. With this in mind, a group of researchers decided to explore using the same approach for many cities. 

“It would be nice if we knew by how much different heat mitigation measures can reduce temperatures in different cities. If we knew this, decision-makers would be able to select the most appropriate strategy for reducing heat in a specific city. This include increasing the albedo, for example,” study author Jonas Schwaab, told ZME Science. 

Studying trees

Schwaab and his colleagues used land surface temperature data derived from satellites and detailed data on land cover in European cities to compare the temperatures on different land-covers, looking at whether this temperature difference was the same in different regions. The assumption was that trees had a high cooling potential in cities.

The findings showed that tree-covered areas in and around cities are cooler than dense built-up areas during the day in all European regions. However, in central Europe, the temperature difference is higher than in Southern Europe. This is because trees in central Europe usually have more water than they can transpire, the authors suspect. 

“In southern Europe, overall drier than central Europe, less water is available and there’s less transpiration from trees. However, while the cooling effect of trees in Southern Europe through transpiration may be lower than in central Europe, trees are of course very important in providing shade in dry and wetter regions,” Schwaab said. 

While the study could have implications for urban development, the authors warned it has a set of limitations. Schwaab said that the land surface temperature data they used is not ideal for studying the potential reductions in air temperature and that they only focused on the effects of trees on temperature via transpiration rather than on other influences. 

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications. 

Archeologists may have figured out why American rabbits were never domesticated

Although the Americas have many native rabbit species, they were never domesticated. Europe only has one native species of rabbits, and this one was domesticated. Archeologists at Iowa State University and the University of California Riverside say they might have found the explanation.

The bones of two rabbits found in the stomach of an eagle sacrificed at the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Image credits Nawa Sugiyama / UCR.

Rabbits — furry fuzzy little creatures that taste pretty good. And, although they taste pretty good everywhere, the original inhabitants of the Americas didn’t seem to ever truly domesticate them, whereas Europeans did. This disparity is made all the more intriguing as all European breeds of rabbit today were bred from a single species, originally limited to the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France during the last Ice Age. The Americas, in contrast, are home to many more native species of rabbit.

A new paper proposes that it comes down to how the animals interact. European rabbits are more social, they explain, whereas American cottontails are not. Together with the greater rabbit species diversity in the New World, this meant that early rabbit husbandry didn’t successfully domesticate the animals.

Not fun at parties

Andrew Somerville of Iowa State University and Nawa Sugiyama of UC Riverside have spent a lot of time trying to understand why some rabbits were readily domesticated, while others were not. Sugiyama primarily worked at Teotihuacan, one of the largest ancient cities in today’s Mexico. Here, he explains, rabbit remains comprise around 23% of all animal remains found from the Classic period — more than the remains of any other species used for meat at the site. The bones were concentrated more toward the city center, he adds, which suggests that the animals were being raised, not hunted.

Analysis of the remains further supports this view. Samples were taken from rabbits buried at the Sun and Moon Pyramids, and from specimens found in the stomachs of sacrificial carnivores. Isotope analysis revealed that these rabbits primarily ate corn and cactus, both to a much higher percentage than you’d expect in wild rabbits. It fits with the theory that these rabbits were raised by humans and, in turn, used to feed sacrificial animals.

“The rabbits were probably fed corn, but the carbon isotopes don’t distinguish between corn and cactus, so we can’t say for certain,” Sugiyama said.

One apartment compound excavated at the site had high amounts of phosphate on the floor, littered with animal bones. Almost half of the bones here came from rabbits that had been fed similar diets, mostly agricultural grains. The high level of phosphate on the floor suggests the animals were kept here, as phosphate is excreted through urine. A stone statue of a rabbit found in the central plaza of the complex made interpreting the finding that much easier.

But we know from historical records that rabbits in the Aztec empire were not domesticated — the Spanish conquistadors confirmed this. They recounted the Aztecs raising and trading the animals, but note that they were still wild. To understand why, Somerville compared the behavioral ecology of European rabbits and American cottontails with known criteria that make species suited to domestication efforts. A few among these include living in groups with resident males, having youths that require parental care and imprint easily, low reactivity to humans, tolerance for a wide range of environments, and being quite promiscuous.

Rabbits in America and Europe check all those marks, except social behavior for those in the Americas. Where European rabbits live in warrens housing up to 20 individuals, American cottontails are solitary and live entirely above ground. For the former, this made it easier for people to find the animals in the wild and mimic their natural living arrangement in captivity. Since they’re not natively social, cottontails tend to fight and kill one another in captivity.

The team proposes that the solitary nature of the cottontails is what prevented them from becoming domesticated in the real sense of the word. Greater species diversity also helped in this regard, as husbandry efforts were diluted among different species instead of pooled into a single one.

The paper “Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?” has been published in the journal Animal Frontiers.

Climate change is slowing down Europe’s storms, raising flooding risks

Europe should brace for more intense storms, new research reports, as climate change stands to power them up in the future.

Flooding in Sigonella, Sicily, Italy, in 2005. Image via Pixabay.

Intense, slow-moving rainstorms on the old continent will become more common in the future, according to experts at Newcastle University and the Met Office, UK. In absolute terms, we may see a 14-fold increase in their current frequency across dry land by the end of the century, they report. Such storms generally carry large amounts of precipitation which can cause extensive damage through flooding.

Slower storms tend to pose more of a risk because they dump precipitation on overall smaller areas, which means these are affected more strongly.

More of a bad thing

“With recent advances in supercomputer power, we now have pan-European climate simulations resolving the atmosphere in high detail as short-range weather forecasting models do,” explains lead author Dr. Abdullah Kahraman, of Newcastle University’s School of Engineering. “These models have grid spacing of approximately 2 km, which allows them to simulate storm systems much better, resulting in better representation of extremes”.

Although we’re already seeing flash floods across areas of Europe that traditionally never had to face them, such events will become even more common by the end of the century. Heating climate stands poised to make storms move slower over land, making them more likely to produce flooding through rainfall accumulation.

This, the team explains, is the first study to look at how the speed storms move at will be influenced by climate change. Most research regarding climate change and weather are focused on estimating the frequency and violence of freak or severe weather events to come.

“Using these state-of-the-art climate simulations, we have developed metrics to extract potential cases for heavy rainfall, and a smaller, almost-stationary subset of these cases with the potential for high rainfall accumulations. These metrics provide a holistic view of the problem, and help us understand which factors of the atmosphere contribute to heavy rainfall changes.

Since governments the world over have lagged behind on efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions, there isn’t much we can do to avoid this increase in slow storms, according to the team. Under a RCP8.5 (business as usual) scenario, we can expect serious impacts throughout Europe, they add, from a combination of freak weather and more common storms, as well as the increase in slow-moving storms. The recent flooding seen in Germany and Belgium sadly underscores why such storms are dangerous to life and property, they add.

Europe itself is poorly suited to deal with slow-moving storms, as they are naturally very uncommon occurrences here, and generally confined to parts of the Mediterranean Sea. This means that predicting how they will evolve in the future, and which areas are likely to see the most of them, is vital to help people adapt and put systems in place to prevent loss of life due to flooding, as well as to limit the damage they can incur.

The paper “Quasi‐Stationary Intense Rainstorms Spread Across Europe Under Climate Change” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Genomic studies uncover the tale of the first Bronze Age civilizations in Europe

Although they were set apart in cultural customs, architectural preference, and art, the earliest bronze-using civilizations from Europe were quite similar from a genetic standpoint, a new paper reports.

Reenactors living as a bronze-age family. Image credits Hans Splinter.

The exact details of the Early Bronze Age civilizations across the world aren’t always clear — and the peoples living around the Aegean Sea are no exception to this. One theory regarding this period is that these groups — mainly the Minoan, Helladic, and Cycladic civilizations — were introduced to new technology and ideas by groups migrating from the east of the Aegean, with whom they intermingled.

However, new findings show that these groups were very similar genetically, which wouldn’t support the idea that an outside group was present and overwhelmingly mixed with the locals, at least during the Early Bronze age (5000 years ago). In turn, this would mean that the defining technologies and developments of this era, the ones that took us from the stone to the copper/bronze age, were developed in the Aegean Sea region largely independently of outside influences. That being said, the team does report finding genetic evidence of ‘relatively small-scale migration’ from the East of this area.

Domestically-developed, foreign influences

“Implementation of deep learning in demographic inference based on ancient samples allowed us to reconstruct ancestral relationships between ancient populations and reliably infer the amount and timing of massive migration events that marked the cultural transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age in Aegean,” says Olga Dolgova, a postdoctoral researcher in the Population Genomics Group at the Centre Nacional d’anàlisi Genòmica (CNAG-CRG), and a co-author of the paper.

The transition from the late stone age to the early bronze age was mediated (and made possible) by the development of ideas such as urban centers, the use of metal, an intensification in trade, and writing. History is rife with examples of people moving around and spreading ideas as they go, so the team set out to understand whether the Early Bronze Age in the Aegean area was made possible by such a movement of people and ideas.

To find out, they took samples from well-preserved skeletal remains at archaeological sites throughout this region. Six whole genomes were sequenced, four of them belonging to individuals from the three local culture groups during the Early Bronze Age, and two from the Helladic culture. Furthermore, full mitochondrial genomes were sequenced from 11 other individuals who lived during the Early Bronze Age.

This data was pooled together and used to perform demographic and statistical analyses in order to uncover the individual histories of the different population groups that inhabited this area at the time.

The findings seem to suggest that early developments were in large part made locally, most likely growing on top of the cultural background of local Neolithic groups, and weren’t owed to a massive influx of people from other areas.

By the Middle Bronze Age (4000-4,600 years ago) however, individuals living in the northern Aegean area were quite different, genetically, from those in the Early Bronze Age. Half their lineage traced back to people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, an area spanning to the north of the Black Sea from the Danube and to the Ural river. By this point, they were already highly similar to modern Greeks, the team adds.

In essence, the findings suggest that immigration started playing an important role in shaping local genetics after the peoples in the Aegean area had already transitioned from the stone to copper/early bronze age. With that in mind, these influxes precede the earliest known forms of Greek; this would suggest that although immigration didn’t play a large part in shaping technology and know-how during the early bronze age, it did play a central role in cultural matters as time went on, such as the emergence and evolution of Proto-Greek and Indo-European languages in either Anatolia or the Pontic-Caspian Steppe region.

“Taking advantage [of the fact] that the number of samples and DNA quality we found is huge for this type of study, we have developed sophisticated machine learning tools to overcome challenges such as low depth of coverage, damage, and modern human contamination, opening the door for the application of artificial intelligence to paleogenomics data,” says Oscar Lao, Head of the Population Genomics Group at the CNAG-CRG, and a co-author of the paper.

The advent of the Bronze Age in the Aegean region was a pivotal event in European history, one whose legacy still shapes much of its economic, social, politic, and philosophical traditions — and, by extension, the shape of the world we live in today.

Despite this, we know precious little of the peoples that made this transition, how they fared over time, or how much of them still resides in the genomes of modern-day groups such as the Greeks. The team hopes that similar research can be carried out in the Armenian and Caucasus regions, two regions ‘to the east of the Aegean’. A better understanding of peoples here could help further clarify what was going on in the Aegean at the time, helping us better understand the evolution of local technology, languages, customs, and genetic heritage.

The paper “The genomic history of the Aegean palatial civilizations” has been published in the journal Cell.

This giant stone slab might be the oldest known 3D map in Europe

It’s not exactly 3D printing, but it’s just as amazing — if not more. First unearthed in France in 1900, a Bronze Age stone slab has been recently rediscovered by a group of researchers, who now believe it could be the oldest three-dimensional map in Europe.

In their study, they determined that the markings were carved 4,000 years ago, representing an area in Western Brittany, France.

Image courtesy of the researchers .

The intricately carved Saint-Bélec slab was found during digs on a prehistoric burial ground in Finistère by local archaeologist Paul du Chatellier. It is believed to date from the early Bronze Age, sometime between 1900 BC and 1650 BC. Following the finding, the slab was apparently forgotten for over a century, stored for decades at Chatellier’s home.

Back then, Chatellier wasn’t sure about the meaning of the carvings of the four-meter-long slab. Some scholars at the time argued they were shapeless human representations or even a picture of a beast. Researchers also suggested that the meaning would become clear with future research – which just what happened.

A group of French researchers looking for the slab found it in a cellar in 2014 and have been trying to figure it out ever since. After analyzing marks and engravings on the stone, the team suspected it could be a map. The “presence of repeated motifs joined by lines” on its surface suggested it depicted an area of Finistère in France.

“This is probably the oldest map of a territory that has been identified,” Clément Nicolas from Bournemouth University, one of the study’s authors, told the BBC. “There are several such maps carved in stone all over the world. Generally, they are just interpretations. But this is the first time a map has depicted an area on a specific scale.”

The study was carried out using whole slab observations, general and detailed photographs with oblique lighting, and several 3D survey methods such as photogrammetry and general and high-definition 3D-scanning. This allowed to record the surface topography of the slab at different scales and to analyze the morphology, technology, and chronology of the engravings.

Image credit: The researchers

Based on the findings, the researchers now believe the map-like engravings and motifs carved on the surface of the slab provide a rough three-dimensional (3D) match to the River Odet valley – with several lines depicting the area’s river network. The territory represented on the slab bears an 80% accuracy to an area around an 18 mile-long stretch of the river.

The slab, first found in a burial mound, was probably reused for some reason as part of the burial process, forming one of the walls of the stone barrow, the researchers believe. The engraved side was facing inward to the tomb so the markings weren’t exposed to the elements of thousands of years – which explains the slab’s overall good condition.

“A map is a drawing or plan of the earth’s surface or part of it,” the team wrote in their paper. “The Saint-Bélec Slab does indeed bear the three elements that are most probative of prehistoric cartographic representation: homogenous composition with engravings that are identical in technique and style and repetition of motifs.”

What’s less certain is what other motifs carved into the slab might represent, but the researchers believe they could reflect the location of early Bronze Age settlements, other barrow sites, field systems, and tracks. If that’s the case, the map would then reflect an organizational plan of land use and ownership according to the political and economic rulers of the time.

“There was undoubtedly a justification for carving this work in stone … leaving a mark,” archeologist Yvan Pailler from the University of Western Brittany, one of the team members, told Science Alert. “Making cartography like that … is often linked to the affirmation of power, of authority over a territory. This is the general context of achievement that occurs in the Early Bronze Age.”

The study was published in the journal Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française.

In Europe, air pollution fell while plastic use rose during the lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions in Europe have led to some environmental benefits such as lower emissions and better air quality. But they were temporary and concurrent with an increase in single-use plastic, according to a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Credit Flickr Nickolay

The EU agency published the report “COVID-19 and Europe’s environment,” which offers a preliminary view of what the pandemic, and resulting government measures to fight it, have meant for the environment. It highlighted the urgent need to address the environmental challenges Europe faces, its authors said.

One of the most evident short-term effects of COVID-19 lockdowns has been a dramatic improvement in air quality. Although air quality now appears to be returning to near-pre-lockdown levels, this period has revealed some of the benefits that could be achieved from a lasting and sustainable reduction in air pollution.

The EEA’s Air quality and COVID-19 viewer tracks average weekly and monthly concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5). Data show how concentrations of NO2 — a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport — fell sharply in many European countries.

Concentrations of PM 10 also fell across Europe in this period, but the decrease was less pronounced. Whereas NO2 emissions are largely attributable to road transport, PM concentrations are influenced by emissions from natural sources as well as man-made sources such as residential heating, agriculture, and industry. The extent of reductions varied considerably, with the largest of up to 70% seen in urban centers in those countries most affected by COVID-19 at that time. Other cities which were less affected by the COVID first wave and saw activity returning sooner, experienced sharp initial declines in NO2, followed by a return to pre-lockdown levels.

“While we have grown accustomed to unhealthy noise levels in cities, the short-term reduction during lockdown allowed people to experience the immediate benefits of quieter cities. Several sources have also documented a dramatic fall in ground vibrations generated by human activity, such as road traffic,” the authors wrote.

According to initial evaluations from the International Energy Agency (IEA), global energy demand in 2020 could fall by around 6%. Therefore, the strong contraction in GDP and energy use might help the EU achieve its 20% renewable energy target and its objective to improve energy efficiency by 20% in 2020.

The role of plastics

The pandemic has caused significant changes in the production and consumption of plastics and plastic waste. There was a sudden surge in global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves. During the start of the pandemic, 89 million medical masks were requested globally.

Since most restaurants in Europe were closed for on-site dining, many moved to offering take away and delivery services using single-use plastic containers. Several coffee retailers stopped allowing customers to bring refillable containers, using disposable cups in their place. Meanwhile, online shopping outlets have seen a surge in demand, with many products packed in single-use plastic.

“While disposable plastic products have played an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, the upsurge in demand for these items could challenge EU efforts to curb plastic pollution and move towards a more sustainable and circular plastics system,” the authors of the report argued.

It’s not just a health concern: air pollution is costing European citizens $190 billion per year

Air pollution is a threat to both public health and economic progress, a new report showed, costing the inhabitants of European cities $190 billion per year. The study looked at air quality, health, and transport data from over 400 cities, finding air pollution costs the average citizen $1.400 per year.

Credit Flickr World Bank

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), a group of environmental and social organizations, quantified the monetary “social cost” of premature death, medical treatment, and lost working days. These and others are linked to three air pollutants, particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂).

London had the highest social cost from pollution in absolute terms, totaling $13.3 billion in lost welfare. Bucharest (with $7.4 billion lost) and Berlin (with $6.1 billion euros lost) came second and third, respectively. All cities with a population of over 1 million feature in the top 25 cities with the highest social costs due to air pollution.

Air pollution is the number one cause of premature deaths from environmental factors in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). The problem is greatest in cities, where two-thirds of Europeans live. Two-thirds of cities break clean air standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

EPHA Acting Secretary-General Sascha Marschang said: “Our study reveals the magnitude of the damage toxic air is causing to people’s health and the huge health inequalities that exist between and within countries in Europe. To a large extent, the situation can be influenced by transport policies and cities can reduce costs by switching to zero-emission urban mobility.”

The study is the largest of its kind, in terms of the number of cities and pollutants studied. The researchers took the latest complete data from Eurostat and official monitoring stations from 2018, to calculate the harms caused and the costs related to resulting illnesses. They excluded indoor air pollution, a significant cause of illness. The data encompassed 432 cities in all EU countries plus the UK, Norway, and Switzerland. Added together, air pollution costs for city residents amount to $190 billion per year or $455 million per city on average. When grouped by the city rather than per capita cost, those living in big cities tend to face the highest pollution costs.

PM incurs the vast majority of costs, accounting for 82.5% on average. It’s followed by NO₂ with 15% and O₃ with 2.5%. These proportions vary considerably between cities. The Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region has the highest rate of air pollution deaths while Southern Europe has the highest rate of chronic illnesses.

“Our findings provide additional evidence that reducing air pollution in European cities should be among the top priorities in any attempt to improve the welfare of city populations in Europe,” the researchers wrote in the report. “The present COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored this.”

This will be the longest immersed tunnel and it will be ready by 2029

Following a decade of planning, the construction of the world’s longest immersed tunnel has officially started. The Fehmarnbelt Tunnel, which will connect Denmark and Germany, is scheduled to open in 2029. It’s one of Europe’s largest ongoing infrastructure projects, with a budget of more than $8 million.

Credit Femern.

The tunnel will have an 18 kilometers extension and will be built across the Fehmarn Belt, a strait between the German island of Fehmarn and the Danish island of Lolland. It will be an alternative to the current ferry service, which takes 45 minutes. Travelling through the tunnel will take seven minutes by train and ten minutes by car.

It will be the longest combined road and rail tunnel anywhere in the world, with two double-lane motorways, separated by a service passageway, and two electrified rail tracks. Besides the benefits to passenger trains and cars, it will have a positive impact on the flow of freight trucks and trains.

“Today, if you were to take a train trip from Copenhagen to Hamburg, it would take you around four and a half hours,” Jens Ole Kaslund, technical director at Femern A/S, the state-owned Danish company in charge of the project, told CNN. “When the tunnel will be completed, the same journey will take two and a half hours.

The project started back in 2008 when Germany and Denmark signed a treaty to build the tunnel. But it took more than a decade for the necessary legislation to be passed by both countries and for geotechnical and environmental impact studies to be carried out. Still, many organizations have currently open appeals against the project.

In the meantime, amid precautions to keep workers safe from COVID-19, construction work started in the summer on the Danish side. Work will carry on for a few years in Denmark before moving into German territory.

Workers are now building a new harbor in Lolland and in 2021 they will start construction of a factory, both meant to support work on the tunnel. Located behind the port, the factory will have six production lines to assemble the 89 massive concrete sections that will make up the tunnel. Each section will be 217 meters long, 42 meters wide, and 9 meters tall, weighing 73,000 metric tons each – as heavy as more than 13,000 elephants. They will be placed just beneath the seabed.

“The tunnel will create a strategic corridor between Scandinavia and Central Europe. The upgraded railway transfer means more freight moving from road to rail, supporting a climate-friendly means of transport. We consider cross-border connections a tool for creating growth and jobs,” Michael Svane of the Confederation of Danish Industry told CNN.

Pollution and climate change are driving ill-health across Europe, report finds

Air and noise pollution, the impacts of climate change such as heatwaves, and exposure to dangerous chemicals are causing ill health in Europe, according to a new report, which estimated poor environmental quality contributes to 13% (one in every eight) of deaths in European Union countries.

Credit Hornbeam Arts. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Drawing from World Health Organization (WHO) data, the European Environment Agency (EEA) highlighted in its report how the quality of Europe’s environment plays a key role in determining our health.

People are exposed to multiple risks at any time, including air, water, and noise pollution, which combine and in some cases act in unison to impact health, the EEA argued. European cities are particularly vulnerable to these multiple threats, while also offering less access to green and blue spaces.

“There is a clear link between the state of the environment and the health of our population. Everyone must understand that by taking care of our planet we are not only saving ecosystems, but also lives, especially the ones who are the most vulnerable,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries, in a press release.

In the 27 countries of the EU and in the United Kingdom, 630,000 deaths in 2012 were attributed to environmental factors, according to the latest figures available, the report said. It also noted a stark contrast between Western and Eastern Europe, divided along socio-economic lines.

Air pollution is Europe’s top environmental threat to health, driving more than 400.000 premature deaths every year in the EU, the report showed. Noise pollution comes second, contributing to 12.000 premature deaths, followed by the impacts of climate change, notably heatwaves.

The burden of pollution and climate change varies across Europe. Romania has the greatest impact from environmental factors with one in five deaths linked to pollution, while countries like Sweden and Denmark see one in 10. Pollution is linked to cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, the report highlighted.

“Socially deprived communities in Europe typically struggle under a triple burden of poverty, poor quality environments, and ill-health. Poorer communities are often exposed to higher levels of pollution and noise and to high temperatures, while pre-existing health conditions increase vulnerability to environmental health hazards,” the EEA wrote in the report.

On a more positive note, water quality across the European Union is doing well, according to the report. The quality of “bathing water” was described as “excellent” in 85% of cases and 74% of groundwater bodies, an important source of drinking water, have “good chemical status.” Still, the EEA pointed to emerging pollutants in drinking water that aren’t being monitored.

The report called for an integrated approach to environment and health policies to tackle environmental risks, protect the most vulnerable, and fully realize the benefits that nature offers in support of health and well-being. Healthy nature is a key factor that fosters good health and well-being, it added.

In order to improve health and the environment in Europe, green and blue spaces should be favored, as they cool cities during heatwaves, alleviate flood waters, reduce noise pollution, and support urban biodiversity, the EEA argued. Other proposed measures were reducing meat consumption, removing fossil fuel subsidies, and reducing road traffic.

Heatwave sets temperature records across Europe

A heatwave has sent temperatures soaring across western Europe over the weekend, with records broken in the UK, Spain, and Italy. Relief is soon to arrive but weather agencies are warning over more and longer heatwaves, a direct consequence of a warmer world.

The Fountain of the Naiads in Rome. Credit Flickr David McKelvey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cities across Western Europe saw high temperatures anywhere from 10 to 15ºC (50 to 59 Fahrenheit) degrees above normal. The phenomenon was linked to areas of high pressure in northern Africa and led to tourists and locals swarming to the beaches across Europe, making it difficult to maintain physical distancing.

The temperature in San Sebastian on northern Spain reached 42ºC (107 Fahrenheit), which was the hottest weather there since records began in 1955. Meanwhile, the city of Palma on the island of Mallorca saw a record temperature of 40.6ºC (105 Fahrenheit).

The Spanish weather agency, Aemet, said tropical nights, when temperatures don’t fall below 20ºC (68 degrees Fahrenheit), were frequent in many parts of Spain in July and that the annual number of days in heatwave conditions doubled since the 1980s, which is linked to climate change.

Up north, United Kingdom residents also experienced record temperatures, with the national weather agency reporting a reading of 37.8ºC (100 Fahrenheit) at Heathrow Airport near London on Friday. This made it the hottest day of the year so far and the third-hottest on record.

People packed beaches around the British coast, not always obeying the social distancing norms. The city of Brighton on England’s south coast asked visitors to say away, concerned over the number of people in the city.

“Large numbers make it impossible to maintain physical distancing,” the city council said.

In Italy, more than a dozen cities were put on alert as temperatures peaked around 40ºC (104 Fahrenheit) on Friday and Saturday. In Rome, tourists and residents try to escape from the extreme heat by cooling down in public fountains and staying in the shade. The heat made it more difficult to wear face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, people said.

“Your breath gets very warm — your glasses, there are lots of problems,” Ana Gonzalez, a tourist in Rome, told Reuters. “But you put it all aside when you think that it’s protection and there’s no choice about wearing it.”

There’s no single accepted definition of a heatwave across the globe due to variations in climate conditions in different world regions. Nevertheless, they are usually defined by an unseasonably hot period, usually 5ºC or more above the average daily maximum, that lasts at least three days.

Heatwaves usually happen in Europe when high atmospheric pressure draws up hot air from northern Africa, Portugal, and Spain, rising temperatures and increasing humidity. They are not uncommon, but they are being amplified by a rise in global temperatures and are likely to become more frequent.

Europe increasingly focuses on coal-free future

Clean energy sources such as bioenergy, wind, solar, and hydro have generated 40% of the electricity in Europe in the first half of the year, the first time such a figure is reached. Renewables appear to overtake fossil fuels, which generated 34% of the electricity in the European bloc.

The independent think-tank Ember published its half-yearly report, which showed Europe’s long goodbye to coal is finally speeding up. The transition is being helped by the rise of wind and solar power, as well as the energy policy that has priced the fossil fuels out of many European markets.

“This marks a symbolic moment in the transition of Europe’s electricity sector. Renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels, driven by wind and solar replacing coal. That’s fast progress from just nine years ago when fossil fuels generated twice as much as renewables,” Dave Jones, an electricity analyst at Ember, said in a press release.

Green energy rose by 11% while fossil fuels fell by 18% in the first six months of the year in Europe, according to the findings, which argued the larger share of renewables was driven by new wind and solar installations and favorable weather conditions across the continent.

This also becomes evident when looking at each power source. Wind was +11%, solar +16%, hydro +12%, and bioenergy only +1%. Meanwhile, coal was -32% and natural gas was -6%. Every EU country that still uses coal saw a fall in coal generation. Germany led in absolute terms with a 39% drop, followed by Poland (12%) and Czech Republic (20%). These are encouraging figures for Europe’s climate future.

The findings by Ember were reinforced by Global Energy Monitor researchers, who predicted a record rate of closures globally this year. The pace of coal plant closures in Spain, with 69% of the entire fleet to be shuttered between 2020 and 2021, has no precedent, Global Energy Monitor Programme Director Christine Shearer told Reuters. Adding renewable energy doesn’t do anything unless fossil plants are shut down, but many European countries have increased their efforts on coal. Austria, closed its last coal plant having closed in April, Belgium was the first EU country to become coal-free, Denmark is set to phase out coal in 2030, France committed to close its last plant by 2022, and Greece will do the same by 2028.

Still, there are several European countries with no clear closure plan for their plants, mainly located in central and Eastern Europe. This includes Turkey, which wants to increase coal capacity to 30GW by 2023, Slovenia, which added six new plants in 2016, Romania and Poland, both with aging coal power plants. Overall though, the share of energy from renewable sources in gross final consumption of energy was 18% in 2018, up from 8.5% in 2008.

Speaking in a recent online conference, former US Vice President Al Gore said to be encouraged by the fact that many economic stimulus plans across the globe amid the pandemic are focused on carbon reduction. This shows the world has crossed a threshold “beyond which it is ever clearer that sustainable technologies are cheaper and better,” he argued. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked countries to stop financing the coal industry in order to have a more sustainable future. He questioned those that have spent more money supporting fossil fuels than renewables amid the pandemic.

A study this year by the financial think tank Carbon Tracker showed coal developers could end up losing up to $600 billion as renewable energy is now cheaper than coal energy in many countries. More than 60% of the coal power plants operating across the globe generate electricity at higher costs than it could be produced by using renewables.

EU eyes countries for renewed travel to the bloc, but not the US

After four months of travel bans, Europe will soon officially be open to visitors from at least 14 countries, but the United States isn’t on the list. The move follows a decline in the number of positive COVID-19 cases across the continent, which hopes to welcome tourists back again.

Credit Flickr

The European Union restricted nonessential travel to most of its member-states under rules in effect until at least June 30. But starting July 1, European countries will loosen some of those measures, allowing travel from non-EU countries again that meet certain criteria, including their ability to contain the coronavirus.

The final list will be revealed at some point this week, but media reports have said Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea will be among those greenlighted. Meanwhile, Brazil, Russia, and the United States will likely be excluded, due to their current high numbers of positive cases.

According to Euronews, 54 countries were on an initial draft list obtained “from EU diplomatic sources.” The list includes countries in Southeastern and Central Europe, as well as Africa, the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. While many will not be ultimately granted access now, they might be greenlighted later on.

That’s not likely going to be the case for the US, which now has the highest number of coronavirus deaths and infections in the world. At least 2.5 million had been infected in the country and 128,000 people had died, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

An EU diplomat told CNN that it was very “unlikely” travelers from the US would be allowed in, adding that even though the list had not been finalized “the US’s chances are close to zero.” The diplomat also said, “with their infection rates … not even they can believe in that possibility.”

But infection rates aren’t the single factor being considered by the EU when choosing which countries to grant access to. Other elements also weight in heavily, such as whether the country has lifted travel restrictions on the EU. Something that is still not the case with the US.

Back in March, as the number of coronavirus cases began growing in the US, President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on anyone arriving from the European Union. Trump described the decision as a way to protect Americans, though some doubted its effectiveness in really slowing the spread of the virus.

The policy change caused confusion about who could and couldn’t return to the US, leading to chaos at airports and potentially backfiring as a rush of people returned to US airports. It also caught European leaders by surprise, who condemned the unilateral decision.

The spat between the EU and the US wasn’t actually something new. Since Trump took office, he has picked up fights with European leaders on a wide array of issues from trade to the Iran deal. The US declined to participate on a global vaccine summit and pulled out of the World Health Organization, both moves questioned by Europe.

As both Europe and the US seek to rebuild their economies, continuing travel bans from both sides will likely make it more difficult. Tourism is already being severely hit, according to the US Travel Association. “The EU’s announcement is incredibly disappointing, and a step in the wrong direction as we seek to rebuild our global economy,” said its VP for Public Affairs Tori Emerson Barnes in a statement.

COVID-19: Lockdown measures in Europe saved more than three million lives

More than three million people’s lives were saved across Europe thanks to the quarantine and lockdown measures implemented during the coronavirus crisis, according to a new study — highlighting the importance of staying at home and implementing social distancing to avoid spreading the virus.

Credit Flickr

The study was carried out by a team at Imperial College London which looked at the impact of the restrictions in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK up to the beginning of May. By then, 130,000 people had died from the virus in those countries.

The researchers (the same group which published the pivotal report that convinced the UK to change its strategy), used disease modeling to predict how many deaths there would have been if lockdown had not happened.

The model showed that across the entire continent, 3.2 million people would have died by 4 May if lockdown measures wouldn’t have been implemented.

“This data suggests that without any interventions, such as lockdown and school closures, there could have been many more deaths from COVID-19,” Dr Samir Bhatt, study author, said in a statement. “The rate of transmission has declined from high levels to ones under control in all European countries we study.”

The researchers calculated that up to May 4, between 12 million and 15 million people were infected by Covid-19 in the selected European countries. Belgium had the highest level of infection at 8% of the population, followed by Spain (5.5%), the UK (5.1%) and Italy (4.6%), according to the study.

The lockdown measures, such as closing schools, limiting the use of public transportation and closing shops and shopping malls, reduced the spread of the virus – meaning the number of people contaminated by each infected person – by 82% on average, the study showed.

Using their model, the researchers predicted that the coronavirus outbreak would be nearly over by now without lockdown, as so many people would have been infected. For example, more than seven in 10 people in the UK would have had Covid-19, leading to herd immunity and the virus no longer spreading.

“Our model suggests that the measures put in place in these countries in March were successful in controlling the epidemic by driving down the reproduction number and significantly reducing the number of people who would have been infected by the virus,” Sarah Flaxman, study author, said in a statement.

The study at Imperial College is in line with similar findings in other parts of the world regarding the positive effects of the lockdowns. Researchers from the University of California looked at the impact of lockdowns in China, South Korea, Iran, France, and the US, finding that 530 million infections were prevented there. Furthermore, the study only analyzed some European countries — the total positive impact is likely to be much higher.

Many of the countries analyzed by the two studies are already starting to lift their lockdowns and getting back to normal. Doing so increases the risk of the virus starting to spread again, researchers argued. “If mobility goes back up there could be a second wave coming reasonably soon, in the next month or two,” Bhatt told the BBC.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Up to 11,000 deaths were avoided in Europe thanks to cleaner air

With most factories closed and a fall in road traffic amid the coronavirus epidemic, air quality has improved in many cities across the globe. This has not only cleaned the skies but also prevented many deaths, according to a recent study.

Paris has been one of the cities benefited from cleaner air. Credit Flickr

The number of deaths related to air pollution in Europe has decreased by 11,000, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. At the same time, 6,000 fewer children have developed asthma and 1,900 visits to emergency rooms were avoided.

While the pandemic continues to take a terrible toll, the authors of the report said the response has offered a glimpse of the cleaner, healthier environment that is possible if the world shifts away from polluting fossil fuel industries.

“The major public health benefits of reduced coal and oil burning, over just one month, are however a striking demonstration of the benefit to public health and quality of life if European decision-makers prioritize clean air, clean energy, and clean transport in their plans to recover from the crisis,” the authors wrote.

Compared with the same period last year, levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide have fallen by 40% while particulate matter levels are down 10%, which means that people can breathe cleaner air. These two forms of pollution, which weaken the heart and respiratory system, are together normally responsible for about 470,000 deaths in Europe each year.

The researchers used models that combine data for air quality, weather conditions, emissions, population, and disease prevalence. They found that Germany had the highest number of avoided deaths (2,083), followed by the UK (1,752), Italy (1,490), France (1,230), and Spain (1,083).

By associated disease, almost 40% of the fatality reductions were related to heart failure, 17% from lung ailments such as bronchitis and emphysema, and 13% each from strokes and cancer. The others were related to respiratory infections and diabetes.

Air pollution is the largest environmental health threat in Europe, with the average life expectancy in the European Union shortened by an estimated eight months due to exposure to pollution.

The team’s model estimated a range of prevented deaths between 20,000 to 7,000. Worldwide, the number of avoided pollution deaths will be much higher because this study focuses on only one continent and one month.

The lead author of the analysis, Lauri Myllyvirta, told The Guardian that the fall in air pollution had reduced pressure on health services at an important time and has shown how much of a difference air quality improvement can make. But he was wary of framing this as a benefit.

“I am very conflicted about all of this. People are dying. The measures we have been forced to take are causing a lot of economic and other distress, but this is an unprecedented experiment in reducing fossil fuel consumption so of course people working on air pollution are paying attention,” he said.

Air pollution is the most urgent environmental health risk in the world. More than 90% of the planet breathes unhealthy air, leading to seven million premature deaths per year and billions of dollars in costs for health services.

Sweden waves goodbye to its last coal plant — two years in advanced

Slowly but surely, European countries are starting to renouncing coal, one of the most polluting energy sources available.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Sweden just became the third European country to leave coal behind, following Belgium and Austria. The country decided to shut down its last remaining coal plant two years before the scheduled closure, signaling a strong intent to shift to renewable energy.

The coal plant is located in eastern Stockholm and owned by Stockholm Exergi, a company part-owned by the City of Stockholm. The decision was described by the company as a “milestone” and will help lower the greenhouse gas emissions of the country.

“This plant has provided the Stockholmers with heat and electricity for a long time — today we know that we must stop using all fossil fuels, therefore the coal needs to be phased out and we did so several years before the original plan,” Anders Egelrud, chief executive of Stockholm Exergi, said in a statement.

The company first aimed to close the plant in 2022, gradually reducing its output. But the deadline was met sooner, mainly thanks to a lower electricity demand due to a mild winter in Sweden — instead of waiting for another two years, better close it now and save the emissions.

Thanks to the move, Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, is a step closer to having its district heating produced only by renewable or recycled energy by 2030. Many European cities use district heating instead of localized boilers, as it increases efficiency and reduces pollution.

“Since Stockholm was almost totally fossil-dependent 30-40 years ago, we have made enormous changes and now we are taking the step away from carbon dependence and continuing the journey towards an energy system entirely based on renewable and recycled energy,” Egelrud added.

Sweden’s decision advances Europe’s movement away from coal. Belgium became the first EU country to phase out coal for heating and power in 2016. Austria followed this year, closing its last coal-fired plant – which powered a district heating network in the municipality of Mellach.

Seven more countries are expected to end coal by 2025: France (2022), Slovakia (2023), Portugal (2023), the UK (2024), Ireland (2025) and Italy (2025), according to Europe Beyond Coal. They are expected to be followed by Greece (2028), the Netherlands (2029), Finland (2029), Hungary (2030), and Denmark (2030).

There are ongoing discussions in the Czech Republic, Spain and North Macedonia about when to exit coal-fired electricity. Germany has said it will put its last coal plant offline by 2038, a commitment that still has to be firmed up in the country’s coal exit law.

“Against the backdrop of the serious health challenges we are currently facing, leaving coal behind in exchange for renewables is the right decision and will repay us in kind with improved health, climate protection and more resilient economies,” Kathrin Gutmann, campaign director for Europe Beyond Coal, told PV Magazine.

Leaving fossil fuels behind isn’t good just for the planet, it’s also an economically smart move, as the costs of renewables are dropping across the globe. A study by Carbon Tracker showed coal developers could end up losing up to $600 billion as renewable energy is now cheaper than coal energy in many countries.

Anti-coronavirus measures saved at least 59,000 lives in Europe so far

Venice’s San Marco square is typically flooded with tourists this time of year. Not anymore. Credit: Pixabay.

After the novel coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan, China, where it sowed a devastating pandemic, it is now Europe’s turn to face the brunt of the carnage.

As leaders from the old continent saw death tolls rising at an exponential rate in places like Italy and Spain, they knew something had to be done. Their action plan is now known and felt by most European citizens, who are forced to live through unprecedented restrictions in peacetime.

This all makes sense, though. The reasoning is that we have to temporarily sacrifice our livelihoods, in order to save lives in the future.

Almost 60,000 fatalities have been averted in 11 European countries

We also now have evidence that this works. According to British researchers at Imperial College London, as many 59,000 fatalities have been averted in 11 European countries since distancing measures were imposed by local authorities. There are actually 44 countries in Europe so the real number of averted deaths could be much higher.

There’s still so much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus, but while scientists might debate the exact figures, one thing’s for sure: the novel coronavirus is extremely contagious.

One often-cited figure is that of virus’ rate of transmission, often denoted as R0 by epidemiologists, which hovers at around 2.5 (twice as contagious as the flu). This means that for each person that gets infected, if there is absolutely no social distancing measure in place, another 2.5 people will get infected, which in turn will go to infect another 2.5 people and so on.

In the space of a month, one infected person leads to about 400 additional cases, according to Adam Kucharski, a mathematician who specializes in disease outbreaks.

However, if you close schools and universities, ban public gatherings, and enforce guidelines on hygiene and social distancing, this rate will go down dramatically.

But since it takes around 5 days on average for an infected person to start exhibiting symptoms, and another 15 days on average for an infected person to potentially die, there’s an inherent lag between the moment restrictions are imposed and their actual impact.

This lag has been accounted for by the study “by calculating backwards from the deaths observed over time to estimate transmission that occurred several weeks prior, allowing for the time lag between infection and death.”

And, according to the results, we aren’t suffering in vain.

“In Italy, we estimate that the effective reproduction number, Rt, dropped to close to 1 around the time of lockdown (11th March), although with a high level of uncertainty,” the authors wrote.

An epidemic can be contained and even eradicated as soon as the reproductive number is below zero. We’re not there yet but it’s clear that social distancing and other strict measures work.

” With current interventions remaining in place to at least the end of March, we estimate that interventions across all 11 countries will have averted 59,000 deaths up to 31 March [95% credible interval 21,000-120,000]. Many more deaths will be averted through ensuring that interventions remain in place until transmission drops to low levels,” the authors added.

Daily number of confirmed deaths, predictions (up to 28 March) and forecasts (after) for (a)
Italy and (b) Spain from our model with interventions (blue) and from the no interventions counterfactual model (pink). Credit: Imperial College London.

43 million might already have COVID-19 in Europe

Perhaps the most striking information found in the new report by scientists at Imperial College has to do with their estimates of the number of people infected in each country.

As many as 43 million people might be infected in the 11 European countries included in the study.

“We estimate that, across all 11 countries between 7 and 43 million individuals have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 up to 28th March, representing between 1.88% and 11.43% of the population.”

The most affected countries are Spain and Italy, while the least affected counties, in terms of the proportion of the population infected to date, were Germany and Norway.

Country% of total population that is infected (estimate)
Great Britain2.7%
Source: Imperial College, “Report 13: ­­Estimating the number of infections and the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions on COVID-19 in 11 European countries.”

The influential modeling group at Imperial College London made another striking estimate: As many as 90% of the world’s population could become infected by the new coronavirus, killing 40.6 million people, if no measures are put in place to keep the pandemic at bay.

In contrast, social distancing, massive testing, and isolating confirmed cases could bring the worldwide death toll to 1.9 million — that’s a more than 20-fold reduction in fatalities.

So, there you have it: social distancing works. Stay at home!

Cities affected by air pollution could be more vulnerable to coronavirus

Air pollution is the most urgent environmental health risk in the world. More than 90% of the planet breathes unhealthy air, leading to seven million premature deaths per year and billions of dollars in costs for health services.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The cities and regions most affected by air pollution, mainly located in China and India, are also exposed to a larger risk from coronavirus, a group of experts grouped under the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) warned.

The polluted air that leads to diseases such as diabetes may also cause a higher overall number of coronavirus cases, EPHA said, claiming that the level of emissions from diesel cars in many cities was still “dangerous” despite the pandemic.

“Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die,” EPS member Sara De Matteis said. “This is likely also the case for COVID-19.”

There is no proven link between coronavirus mortality and air pollution yet. But the EPHA mentioned a 2013 study that looked into the outbreak of SARS, which is related to the coronavirus, and found that victims of the virus were 84% more likely to die if they lived in areas with moderate air pollution.

With over 8.000 cases, SARS killed 774 people between 2002 and 2003, with most infected located in China. The mortality information of COVID-19 is so far incomplete but the preliminary figures indicate that most of the patients that died were elderly or had pre-existing chronic conditions.

EPHA said the northern region of Italy is not only the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, but also a hotspot of air pollution in the continent. There was a significant drop in pollution levels in the region since the outbreak, according to satellite images. A similar effect was seen in China, one of the countries most affected by air pollution. Satellites detected a “significant” drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in China’s airspace. The reduction can be linked, at least partially, to the economic slowdown following the coronavirus outbreak.

While the air might be clearing in Europe, the “damage had already been done to human health and the ability to fight off infection,” said EPHA Acting Secretary-General Sascha Marschang. Governments should have tackled chronic air pollution long ago, but have prioritized the economy over health, he added.

A recent study claimed the world is facing a “pandemic of air pollution”, which shortens life expectancy by almost three years — more than tobacco, AIDS, wars, or diseases such as malaria. East Asia and Africa were found to be the most affected region.

Europe sees first cases of Zika, as experts warn over climate change effects

Rising temperature brought in by climate heating is causing an increase in infectious diseases across the globe, with Zika being the most recent example. The first cases of the virus were just confirmed in Europe, with three people infected in France.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Since the outbreak started in 2015 in South America, Europe has seen about 2.400 cases of Zika. But all the infections until now were picked up by tourists visiting other countries and then brought back to their home countries. Now, the three people were infected directly in Europe, showing that the disease-carrying mosquito can survive and spread its pathogens in a warming European climate.

According to the European Center for Diseases Prevention and Control (ECDPC), the three cases were found in the French Riviera in August. The patients had symptoms only within a few days from each other, which means they were part of the same transmission cycle.

The ECDPC confirmed they have already recovered, adding that the risk to residents and travelers to the region is low. Nevertheless, global warming and increased travel between continents mean tropical diseases including Zika could easily expand in Europe — and ‘low’ is more than zero.

The findings are “the first time that locally acquired Zika cases were identified, which poses new challenges for the control of these diseases,” Moritz Kraemer, a researcher into infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, told CNN.

While most infected usually don’t develop symptoms, Zika can cause fever, rash or a headache. The disease can be especially risky for pregnant women, as it can cause premature births, miscarriages and birth defects. In Brazil, about 2.000 kids were affected by microcephaly.

Zika is not something new as it was identified around 70 years back in Uganda, specifically in the forest of Zika. Since then, there have been small outbreaks in several areas of the world such as the Pacific Islands. The major complications started when the virus arrived in Brazil and then expanded to other areas of Latin America.

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted typically by the bite of an infected arthropod such as mosquito, tick, or black fly. Or it might be a less familiar species such as an African Tsetse fly or copepod. These arthropods that carry and transmit diseases are known as vectors.

Diseases and climate change

The discovery of Zika in Europe is not an isolated phenomenon. Climate change caused by man-made actions is leading to longer and more frequent heatwaves and rains. These are excellent conditions for insects to thrive, which enables them to spread their habitats. Vector insects live more when there are extended periods of warm weather and also fly into new areas that were previously too cold and reproduce in water deposits left by the rain

Areas with cooler temperatures such as European countries or the United States have been able to keep mosquito-borne diseases. Nevertheless, this is already changing. In the US, biologist Eric Ordecai found that mosquitoes can adapt to a wide range of temperatures and carry different diseases.

A study published in March said one billion people could face “their first exposure” to a host of mosquito-borne diseases by 2080 under extreme global warming. European countries would be the most affected, the study led by Sadie Ryan said.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has already altered the distribution of some disease vectors. There is evidence that the geographic range of ticks and mosquitoes that carry disease has changed in response to climate change. Ticks have extended their range north in Sweden and Canada and into higher altitudes in the Czech Republic.

A vaccine against Ebola gets European green light

The human medicines committee (CHMP) of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has recommended granting a conditional marketing authorisation in the European Union for Ervebo (rVSVΔG-ZEBOV-GP), the first vaccine to protect individuals (18 years and older) from Ebola virus infection.

The Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever and spreads from person to person through direct contact with body fluids. Death rates in patients who have been infected with the virus have varied from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks. The largest outbreak to date occurred in West Africa in 2014 to 2016 with over 11,000 deaths. The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), caused by Ebola Zaire, has shown case fatality rates around 67%.

Over 3,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus during the ongoing outbreak, which was declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) in July 2019. There are currently no licensed treatments for Ebola, but scientists announced in August that they were a step closer to being able to treat Ebola after two experimental drugs showed survival rates of as much as 90% in a clinical trial in Congo.

“This is an important step towards relieving the burden of this deadly disease,” said Guido Rasi, EMA’s Executive Director. “The CHMP’s recommendation is the result of many years of collaborative global efforts to find and develop new medicines and vaccines against Ebola. Public health authorities in countries affected by Ebola need safe and efficacious medicines to be able to respond effectively to outbreaks and save lives.”

The clinical development of Ervebo was initiated in response to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in cooperation with public health stakeholders, including national institutes of health, ministries of health in countries such as Guinea and DRC, WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Médecins Sans Frontières and others.

Ervebo has been tested in approximately 16,000 individuals involved in several clinical studies in Africa, Europe and the United States where it has been proven to be safe, immunogenic (i.e. able to make the immune system respond to the virus) and effective against the Zaire Ebola virus that circulated in West Africa in 2014-2016. Preliminary data suggest that it is effective in the current outbreak in DRC. Additional efficacy and safety data are being collected through the Expanded Access Protocol and should be included in post-marketing safety reports, which are continuously reviewed by EMA.

Ervebo was supported through EMA’s PRIority MEdicines (PRIME) scheme, which provides early and enhanced scientific and regulatory support to medicines that have a particular potential to address patients’ unmet medical needs. Ervebo was granted eligibility to PRIME in June 2016 for active immunisation against Ebola.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fast-tracked the vaccine’s application for approval in September and decision is expected in March 2020. Seven other experimental Ebola vaccines are at earlier stages of development.

The Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is finally waning. Since the outbreak began in August 2018, almost 3,250 people have been infected and more than 2,150 have died. But the decrease in infections is not a reason to relax efforts to contain the virus, according to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Health authorities in Kinshasa said last week they planned to introduce an experimental second Ebola vaccine, developed by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, in the country’s eastern provinces in November.

Meanwhile, Japan imported the Ebola virus and four other deadly pathogens (Marburg and Lassa viruses and viruses that cause South American hemorrhagic fever and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever) to prepare diagnostic tests for the 2020 Olympics, according to a report in Nature.