Preparing Europe’s cities for climate change impacts

Article Published 13 Jun 2014 Last modified 11 May 2021
5 min read
Climate change is impacting and will continue to impact Europe. Are cities ready to face rising sea levels and temperatures and more extreme events like floods, droughts or heat waves? We asked this question to Birgit Georgi, working on regional vulnerability and climate change adaptation at the European Environment Agency.

What is a resilient city and why do we need resilient cities in Europe?

More than three quarters of Europeans live in urban areas. Cities are the backbone of European economy and wealth and are closely linked to quality of life. At the same time, cities provide many services like workplaces, production of many goods, education, culture, etc., both to rural and urban residents.

The impacts of climate change differ from one city to another. Some will experience more frequent and severe heat waves, while some will face growing water scarcity. Others will have more floods and intense rain episodes. These are not the only impacts cities will face. For example, drier summers will increase the frequency of forest fires, which in turn will affect the air quality in suburbs as well as city centres close by. This wide diversity in climate impacts but also specific socio-economic and cultural conditions in cities require actions tailored to cities’ needs. There is no one size-fits-all solution.

Whatever the impacts they are facing, cities have to prepare and respond to them. In this context, ‘resilient’ cities mean cities that are able to manage change by recovering from extreme weather events and transforming their infrastructure and the way they are organised to adapt to long-term climate changes. A climate-resilient Europe needs resilient cities.

What does the EEA do in the area of urban adaptation?

Climate change adaptation in general requires a combination of actions and a supportive framework to carry them out. The appropriate legislation, incentives and financial support all need to be in place to enable the local and regional stakeholders to implement relevant measures. The European and national levels aim to provide these framing conditions. Knowledge is essential for determining and formulating policy measures. 

Our role at the European Environment Agency is to compile and assess the information, knowledge and tools available in Europe needed for developing adaptation strategies and actions. We make this knowledge available to all types of stakeholders, including, countries, regional and city administrations and the European institutions through the European web platform Climate-ADAPT. This platform is an initiative of the European Commission that we maintain it in collaboration with the European Commission’s Directorate-Generate Climate Action.

We also produce assessments. Our report ‘Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe’ from 2012 assesses vulnerability of cities across Europe, lists options to act and describes the role each governmental level - from local to European - can play in it. Implementation works best when there is a joint approach between all levels from the European to the local level.

Does the EEA work with cities or city networks?

We support several European Commission projects such as EU Cities Adapt finalised in 2013 and the currently ongoing Mayors Adapt initiative.

Mayors Adapt has been set up by the European Commission to encourage and acknowledge local efforts. Signatory cities commit to contributing to the overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy by developing a comprehensive local adaptation strategy or integrating adaptation into relevant existing plans. All the adaptation knowledge from such projects is also accessible through Climate-ADAPT. For example, the city-tailored adaptation support tool resulting from Mayors Adapt will soon be integrated into Climate-ADAPT.

Another strand of our work consists of facilitating capacity-building through events, such as the Open European Day at Resilient Cities held in Bonn in May this year for the second time. For capacity building, we collaborate closely with different European city networks. For example, in cooperation with the local governments network ICLEI and supported by other partners, we have brought together more than 100 representatives from cities across Europe to facilitate city-to-city learning. The results will also be published and shared with relevant networks and EU institutions.

What are the main issues cities facing?

The levels of preparedness for climate change impacts and of awareness vary considerably from one city to another. Their concerns can be grouped into three broad questions: how to assess a city’s vulnerability to climate change, how to finance adaptation and how to organise a multi-level governance approach among others.

Assessing a city’s specific vulnerability to climate change and its actual level of preparedness to climate change is not an easy task. Climate models are often available only for global levels or large regions, while cities need locally tailored information to act upon. However, over the last years there has been some progress in this area thanks to several research projects and closer cooperation between the scientific community and local administrations. The findings were shared at the Open European Day and on Climate-ADAPT.

Once cities know where they stand, they can identify the actions they need to actually become more resilient. Some of these actions require funds. Naturally, financing, infrastructure investments in particular, is another key concern. Infrastructure adaptations require long-term investments and are usually very costly.

The governance issue is closely linked to providing a supportive framework of legislation, incentives, knowledge etc. and concerted actions. Adapting to certain events, such as floods or droughts, requires action far beyond city boundaries involving multiple stakeholders in a region or even a trans-boundary region. Implementation works best when there is a joint approach between all levels from the European to the local level.

Where does Europe stand in terms of urban resilience? 

In my opinion, we still have a long road ahead of us to adapt our cities to climate change, but I also think that the level of awareness has gone up in recent years. I also think that more action is taken on the ground. At the 2014 Open European Day at Resilient Cities, we could see that cities start to move from developing strategies and action plans towards implementing measures.

In 2012, around 200 cities took part in the EU Cities Adapt survey. Three quarters were considering taking adaptation action although the majority still standing at the beginning. As participation in the survey was voluntary, we can assume that these 200 cities are probably more aware than the cities that did not take part in the survey. Some cities like Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Bologna, Ancona or Bratislava are already quite active in adaption. Their increasing engagement over the last years is inspiring other cities.

Financing possibilities improved as well. More funding is clearly earmarked to climate change adaptation and urban resilience. The EU’s multi-annual financial framework 2014-2020 earmarked 20% of the EU budget for climate change action – mitigation as well as adaptation. For example, a share of LIFE+, the EU’s main funding programme for environment and climate, is explicitly earmarked for adaptation. Similarly, the European Regional Development Fund sees disaster risk management and adaptation as an area for funding. In addition, 5 % of its budget is allocated to urban action. The European Investment Bank offers loans to cities, e.g., through the Jessica Instrument, developed in collaboration with the European Commission. Such European funds complement the funds made available by countries and regions.

Funds are certainly important, but strong leadership and political support are equally, if not even more, important for kicking off the process and achieving results on the ground. If adaptation is considered a priority and an investment in the future of a city, it is surprising to see how much some cities can achieve with even limited funds.

Birgit Georgi

Birgit Georgi

Interview published in the issue no.2014/2 of the EEA newsletter, June 2014.


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