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Understanding and adapting to climate change in Europe

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 10:33

The Paris climate deal constitutes a promising step towards building a climate-resilient world. However, an effective approach to climate change requires a wider perspective with the integration of climate change into different public policies around sustainability. Paul McAleavey, Head of Air & Climate Change Programme, European Environment Agency, says adaptation policies can reduce the impacts and damage costs of climate change, and prepare societies to thrive and develop in a changed climate

Green Week 2013Climate change is already impacting our health, natural environment and economy. Even with substantial and immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the emissions already released into the atmosphere are expected to continue changing our climate. Their impacts will be felt across the world in the form of more frequent and severe extreme weather events as well as gradual changes in the climate — such as rising sea levels and warming oceans.

In many parts of Europe, increased intensity and frequency of rainfall will result in frequent and serious flooding events, destroying homes and affecting other infrastructure such as transport and energy in areas at risk. Elsewhere in Europe, in southern Europe in particular, higher temperatures and reduced rainfall will increase the risk of drought, intensifying the competition between agriculture, industry and households for scarce water resources.Climate change could also exacerbate heat-related health problems across Europe, and especially in southern Europe and the Mediterranean. According to World Health Organisation estimates, the heatwave of 2003 caused 70 000 excess deaths in 12 European countries, mostly among older people. By 2050, heatwaves are projected to cause 120 000 excess deaths per year in the European Union, and to have an economic cost of EUR 150 billion if no further measures are taken. This higher estimate is not only due to more frequent and higher temperatures, but also due to Europe’s changing demographics.

Climate change will also affect ecosystems across Europe. Many economic sectors depend on healthy and stable ecosystems to provide a variety of products and services to humans. Changes to the balance of species and habitats in ecosystems could have wide-reaching effects. A reduction in rainfall in southern Europe could make it impossible to grow certain crops, while higher temperatures might allow alien invasive species and species that carry diseases to migrate northwards. Warmer oceans are already forcing various fish species to move northward, which in turn puts further pressure on the fisheries sector.

Most of the damage from extreme weather events in recent decades cannot be attributed to climate change alone. Socio-economic developments and decisions such as expanding cities towards floodplains, are the main causes of the increased damage. But without adaptation actions, damage costs and other adverse effects are projected to increase as our climate continues to change.

The costs of future climate change are potentially very large. Recent research estimates that without adaptation actions, heat-related deaths could reach about 200 000 per year in Europe by 2100, and the cost of river flood damages could be more than EUR 10 billion a year. In the case of extensive climate change and no adaptation actions, forest fires could affect an area of roughly 800 000 hectares every year. The number of people affected by droughts could also increase by a factor of seven to about 150 million per year, and economic losses due to sea-level rise would more than triple to EUR 42 billion a year.

Whatever the projected impacts are, European countries need to adapt their rural landscape, cities, and economy to a changing climate and reduce our vulnerability to climate change. A European Union-level adaptation strategy is already in place to help countries plan their adaptation activities, and more than 20 European countries have adopted national adaptation strategies.

Adaptation policies can reduce the impacts and damage costs of climate change, and prepare societies to thrive and develop in a changed climate. Some adaptation measures involve using natural methods to increase an area’s resilience to climate change, such as restoring sand-dunes to prevent erosion or planting trees on river banks to reduce flooding. Other adaptation measures consist of using laws, taxes, financial incentives and information campaigns to enhance resilience to climate change. Extreme weather events in particular show that not adapting is a very costly decision and is not a viable option in the medium and long term.

The severity of climate change will depend on how much and how quickly we can cut greenhouse-gas emissions released into the atmosphere. The scientific community strongly recommends limiting the rise in global average temperatures and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid adverse impacts of climate change. Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international community has agreed to limit the global average temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial times and to drive efforts to limit this to 1.5°C.

The latest projections by EU Member States, included in the European Environment Agency’s report ‘Trends and projections in Europe 2015’, show that the European Union is heading for a 24% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 with current measures in place, and a 25% reduction with additional measures already being planned in Member States. However, the EEA analysis also shows that new policies need to be put in place to meet the target of a 40% reduction by 2030.

An effective approach to climate change requires a longer-term and wider perspective with the integration of climate change into different public policies around sustainability. This raises questions about how to build cities, how to transport people and products, how to supply energy to homes and factories, how to produce food, and how to manage the natural environment. The challenge is to make sure that all current and future investments put us one step closer to greening the economy and do not lock us into an unsustainable path of development.
It is clear that an effective combination of adaptation and mitigation measures are needed to ensure that impacts of climate change are limited, and that when they occur, Europe is better prepared and more resilient.

The climate deal agreed in Paris in December constitutes a promising step towards building a low-carbon and climate-resilient world. A key component of this agreement is the transition towards clean energy, which calls for investments to be channelled away from polluting fossil fuels towards clean energy sources, worldwide and also in Europe. Making the right investments today can reduce the overall costs of climate change.