Climate change adaptation: it is also our business

Speech Published 20 Nov 2006 Last modified 13 Apr 2011, 09:43 PM
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Jacqueline McGlade's address at UNFCCC COP 12, Nairobi, 17 November
Side event at UNFCCC COP12, Nairobi

17 November 2006, EU pavilion

Vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in Europe
An example: water resources
Jacqueline McGlade,
Executive Director, European Environment Agency

Introductory Remarks

It is my pleasure to deliver this address for the European Environment Agency’ Executive Director. Although Professor Jacqueline McGlade is unable to be here in person, she has asked me to deliver this address on her behalf.

Developing countries experience the most adverse effects from climate change, but they have the least economic capacity to adapt. However, all of us – also those of us in Europe – need to adapt to climate change. The adoption of the “five year programme of work on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change” at this conference in Nairobi is an important step in that direction.

My task today is to speak about vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in Europe by taking the example of water resources.

What is the climate change issue in Europe?

So let me start with the nature of the climate change issue in Europe.

The impacts of significant changes in climate – many of them adverse changes - are already visible globally. These are expected to become more pronounced. This also applies to Europe.

Large temperature increases have occurred in Southern Europe and North-western Russia, while the largest increases in temperature were in the arctic regions. Temperature increase is projected to continue in the future.

Precipitation, through rain and snow, is projected to increase in Northern Europe, especially in winter, and decrease in the Mediterranean region. Sea levels have risen and are projected to rise further in future.

However, extreme events will have the most profound effects on natural resources and the economy. Over recent decades Europe has experienced an increase in heat waves. A succession of floods and droughts has occurred in recent years with substantial economic losses, and health and ecosystem impacts. Although these are not only due to climate change, they could be an indication of what may happen more frequently in the future.

Although projections for such extreme events are uncertain, in most models and scenarios warm periods are projected to be more intense, more frequent and longer lasting. Many parts of the Mediterranean may experience further reduced rainfall and longer drought periods.

In Europe in general, mountain regions, coastal zones, wetlands and the Mediterranean region are particularly vulnerable.

Global temperature may go beyond thresholds that would trigger potentially irreversible climate change with major effects also for Europe. This includes for example the possible melting of the Greenland Ice sheet leading to substantial sea level rise that would affect large parts of Europe’s coasts.

So how is Europe responding?

The European Union has set an indicative target of a maximum of 2 °C global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid severe adverse impacts of climate change. Achieving such a target will require substantial reductions of global greenhouse gas emissions in the order of 50%. However, even if emissions were stopped today, climate change would continue for a long time, due to the historical build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

There is now a growing recognition that Europe too must adapt to the climate change impacts that will occur. But it is important to note that the more successful global emission mitigation efforts are, the less extensive will be our need for adaptation.

The recent review on the economics of climate change, led the former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern, estimates the cost of climate change at 5 % of global GDP each year, if strong action is not taken. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, and effects in the future are not discounted and thus considered seriously, the estimates of damage could rise to 20 % of GDP or more. The cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year with effective, immediate action.

The water example

Let me now turn to the example of water.

There are many different human activities (such as industry, agriculture, fisheries, navigation, water abstraction, tourism), that lead to pressures on water resources. These pressures include pollution from industry and agriculture, management of rivers, building of houses in areas with flood risk, and, in the Mediterranean, a large increase in housing in coastal zones due to migration of many elderly people from North-western Europe. Climate change can be seen as an additional pressure.

Europe is a very diverse continent. In the south, there is a large variation in river flow due to wet winters and long and dry summers. In North-western Europe river flow remains almost constant throughout the year. In the north and east and in mountainous areas, maximum river flow occurs during the snow melting period in spring. One result of climate change could be that the greatest flood risk shifts from spring to winter. 

Climate change may also lead to a reduction of groundwater recharge and hence lower groundwater levels. This could be most severe in southern and south Eastern Europe. At the same time, climate change can increase the demand for water, thus adding to the pressure. 

Water availability is projected to increase in northern Europe and decrease in southern Europe. In Western Europe, extractions could decrease in future due to a saturation of demands and increasing efficiency of water use. However in southern Europe water requirements in agriculture could increase further. The problem of increasing and competing demands for water will thus be exacerbated by climate change.

Furthermore, higher water temperatures and lower river flows in summer can lead to a decrease of water quality. Increases in extreme rainfall events and flash flooding will increase the risk of pollution from, for example, storm water overflow and emergency discharges from waste water treatment plants. Large investments have taken place in such plants and climate change will lead to a need for even further investments. It will therefore be essential to reduce the inflow in waste water treatment plants, by changing the behaviour of people in order to make water-use more efficient.

What could be done within the EU Water Framework Directive?

It was against this backdrop that the EU adopted the Water Framework Directive in the year 2000.

The objective of the Water Framework Directive is to protect inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater.

Achieving good ecological status is the key means by which water quality will be assessed.  Member States must achieve good ecological status in water bodies by 2015.

A major innovation of the Directive is that it starts with ecological boundaries i.e. river basins, rather than administrative boundaries. It requires cross-border co-operation for cross-border river basins. For each river basin in Europe a first River Basin Management Plan must be delivered by 2009. By 2010 operational programmes of measures in each river basin district must be ready. Plans will be reviewed and updated in 2015 and every 6 years thereafter.

There is a need and an opportunity to consider climate change while implementing the directive.

Flooding is specifically addressed through the proposal for a Directive on flood risk management of early 2006. The proposal requires Member States to draw up flood risk management plans for flood risk zones and stipulates that projected climate change should be taken into account in the assessment of future flood risk and of its consequences. 

The 6-year review process within both Directives can be very helpful to allow for a climate change adaptation which can be reviewed and amended in the light of latest evidence.

What other actions could be taken?

But what other actions could be taken?

So far, progress on the integration of climate change adaptation considerations into key EU policies has been limited.

The European Commission has held a number of stakeholder meetings on climate change adaptation during the first half of 2006, including one on water resources.

The intention is to publish a Green Paper by the European Commission in early 2007, which aims to identify possible types of actions at EU level to integrate adaptation into relevant European policy areas.

Several countries have undertaken multi-sector national assessments of climate change. However, few Member States have developed and adopted National Adaptation Strategies. In some EEA member countries adaptation measures are taking place at sub-national or local level, but often in other contexts, for example natural hazard prevention.

Existing adaptive measures are concentrated in flood defence which has enjoyed a long tradition of dealing with climate extremes. These measures are often directed at reducing vulnerability to current climate variability but not at addressing long-term climate change.

Therefore, there is considerable scope for advancing adaptation planning and implementation in other areas including public health, water resources and management of ecosystems.

Further efforts are required to reduce uncertainties in climate scenarios at scales relevant to adaptation, to advance understanding of good practice, to evaluate costs and benefits and to prioritise adaptation options.

It should be stressed that many actions in practice will have to be taken at the sub-national and local levels. The public and private sector, and the general public must all be involved. Sufficient resources, in capacity building and in adaptation measures, should be made available.

To summarise

In conclusion, there is both a need and an opportunity to integrate climate change adaptation measures in water management. This could be done by means of the Water Framework Directive and its six year periodic cycle allows for a long-term strategic adaptation process.

However there is also a need to integrate climate change in all main EU policies. Measures should be enhanced in all water related sectors, in particular agriculture, energy, navigation and tourism. Furthermore, inclusion of climate change in spatial planning is important. There is also a need to reduce or at least limit demand, since in future competition between the different users is expected to increase, exacerbated due to climate change.  Furthermore awareness should be raised of the need for adaptation at local, regional and national levels. Finally there are opportunities to identify best practices and bring together local and regional decision-makers and the private sector.

From 12-14 February 2007 under the German Presidency of the Council of Ministers a conference will be held on climate change and water, which will be an opportunity for policymakers, scientists and practitioners in the relevant sectors to discuss possibilities for further action. EEA will deliver a report to the conference, based on information collected from its member countries.

Thank you for your attention.

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