Europe is facing the worst climate change in five millennia as a result of global warming, the European Environment Agency warned in a report issued Tuesday as the UN's summit on climate control entered its second day.
The melting ice caps in the north could push Europeans into the center of the continent
Europe's four hottest years on record were 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, the agency said.
"Ten percent of Alpine glaciers disappeared during the summer of 2003 alone," the report said. "At current rates, three-quarters of Switzerland's glaciers will have melted by 2050. Europe has not seen climate changes on this scale for 5,000 years."
The report was issued at the agency's headquarters in Copenhagen, coinciding with the first full day of debate at key UN talks on curbing the greenhouse gases that stoke global warming.
In the 20th century, the average global temperature rose 0.7 C (1.25 F) as a result of burning coal, gas and coal -- the carbon fuels that are mainly to blame for the rise. But the rise in Europe was 0.95 C (1.71 F), 35 percent higher, because of the continent's vulnerable location and smaller land mass, the EAA said.
"Without effective action over several decades, global warming will see ice sheets melting in the north and the spread of deserts from the south. The continent's population could effectively be concentrated in the centre," EAA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said.
The European Union is striving to limit the overall global rise in temperature to 2 C (3.6 F) by implementing the UN's Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas pollution and encouraging the use of cleaner resources.
Conditions "never experienced by humans"
But McGlade warned: "Even if we constrain global warming to the EU target of a two-degree (Celsius) increase, we will be living in atmospheric conditions that human beings have never experienced. Deeper cuts in emissions are needed."
The report, "The European Environment -- State and Outlook 2005," is an assessment of environmental quality in 31 countries that is published every five years.
Global warming is listed as one challenge, alongside preserving biodiversity and marine ecosystems, land and water resources and tackling air pollution.
The 12-day Montreal talks, which opened Monday, gather signatories of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Kyoto's parent treaty.
Their main task is to take the first steps towards deciding how to shape commitments for reducing greenhouse gases after the present "commitment period" under the Protocol runs out in 2012.
In its present format, Kyoto requires only industrialized ratifying countries to make target reductions in the pollution. But it does not include the biggest polluter, the United States, which walked out of the pact in 2001, nor China and India, which are now big emitters of carbon dioxide, included in the reductions targets.
Some compare problems caused by greenhouse gases to weapons of mass destruction
Meanwhile at the Montreal summit, Lord May, the president of Britain's leading scientific body, the Royal Society, warned that global warming was an apocalyptic peril whose effects are already visible. "The impacts of global warming are many and serious," May said in an advance copy of his speech released Monday, adding that the environmental problems wrought by greenhouse gases "invite comparison with weapons of mass destruction."
Evironmental groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth warned that the window of opportunity was closing fast. "Extreme weather events, drought and rising sea levels threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Negotiators must remember this as they enter these talks," said Catherine Pearce of Friends of the Earth International.
Greenpeace campaigner Steve Sawyer said the meeting urgently had to give a sign that binding caps would remain post-2012, otherwise the world's fledgling market in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could be wrecked.
Europe already behind
UN representative Richard Kinley urged industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to global warming.
But meeting the demands of the Kyoto Protocol is apparently a massive challenge, especially for Europe. The EU is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent by 2012. But the European Environment Agency has warned that at least 15 major EU countries are only likely to achieve a drop of 2.5 percent. A report on Europe's environmental condition indicates that greenhouse gas emissions have actually been rising since 2000.
China isn't bound by Kyoto
It's not just industrialized giants that are causing concern. Experts pointed out that developing countries like China and India will now have to contribute to anti-pollution controls. The two are not currently bound by the Kyoto Protocol.
The Montreal meeting is the first by the convention since the Kyoto Protocol, signed by 156 countries, took effect in February. The pact commits industrialized nations to making specific cuts in carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases that trap solar heat, thus warming the planet's surface and disrupting its delicate climate system.
Success limited without US
But the present commitment period does not include the planet's worst polluter, the United States, which walked away from the protocol in 2001 because of the high cost of meeting its Kyoto targets.
The ozone layer continues getting thinner
The present Kyoto period is only just a tiny first step towards tackling greenhouse gases that have increased dramatically in recent decades as fossil fuels are burned to power economic growth.
Atmospheric CO2 levels are now at the highest in 650,000 years, scientists say, and 2005 is likely to go into history books as the warmest year on record.
For post-2012 Kyoto to make serious inroads into this pollution, it would have to include the United States and big developing countries. But finding a format that bridges this gulf of interests is a huge task. Negotiations are expected to last several years.