Understanding and acting on the complexity of climate change

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Article Published 17 Sep 2018 Last modified 15 Dec 2022
4 min read
Photo: © Serdar Şeker, WaterPIX/EEA
Climate change is one of the most important challenges of our time. Its impacts are felt across the globe, affecting people, nature and the economy. To mitigate climate change, we need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases significantly. Translating this overall objective into concrete measures requires understanding a complex system linking emissions from different sources to national and regional impacts, global governance and potential co-benefits. The European Environment Agency strives to continuously improve the knowledge needed for designing effective measures on the ground.

From a scientific perspective, climate change is essentially about  the amount of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, released to and taken out of the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, economic activities have been releasing increasing amounts of greenhouse gases far greater than the amount that can be captured by the natural carbon cycle. This leads to an increase in the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, which in turn creates the greenhouse effect, retaining a larger share of the solar energy received on Earth.

Earth observation systems monitor carbon concentrations and keep track of long-term trends. The findings are clear: despite seasonal variations, the number of carbon dioxide ‘parts per million’ (ppm) in the atmosphere has crossed the 400 ppm threshold in 2016 and keeps on rising. Science therefore tells us that to mitigate climate change, we need to reduce significantly the amount of greenhouse gases released and, if possible, to increase the amount captured.

A close look at the economic activities that release greenhouse gases tells a rather complex story. In fact, we can pinpoint key activities responsible for the largest bulk of emissions. By burning fossil fuels and changing the way we use land (e.g. clearing forests to raise cattle), we release the carbon that was captured and kept out of the carbon cycle for hundreds to millions of years. For the last two centuries, fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, provided the energy we needed for our homes and economy — industry, agriculture, transport and so on. Our societies need energy but can this need be met by renewable sources instead of fossil fuels? 

Emissions are national and sectoral, but the effect is global

Another level of complexity is linked to the global nature of climate change. Once released, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere becomes a global problem, irrespective of the country and the sector releasing it. When it comes to reducing emissions, however, we rely almost entirely on political governance structures. Global efforts consist of countries’ national commitments to limit and reduce their emissions. To do this, they need to know the source of their emissions.

In Europe, the amount of greenhouse gases released every year by each key economy sector and its sub-activities are closely monitored. Based on the data submitted by EU Member States, the European Environment Agency analyses trends and projections to assess progress towards the targets set for the EU as a whole and for each Member State. Our climate impacts and vulnerability assessments also show how different regions across Europe are already affected by climate change and what they can expect in the future under different emissions scenarios.

To foster action on climate change mitigation, EU Member States agreed on a number of climate and energy policies and set clear targets for 2020 and 2030. Our assessments show that the European Union is on track to meet its 2020 targets but more effort is need to achieve the more ambitious 2030 targets. Countries, regions and cities and other actors also share information on how to adapt to a changing climate.

Turning information into relevant knowledge

This knowledge is essential. However, to formulate and implement effective measures, we also need a more systemic understanding. For example, can the transport sector, which was responsible for more than 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the EU in 2016, cut down its addiction to petrol and diesel, and switch to clean electricity? Can Europe produce this extra energy without adding pressure on the environment? How can urban design tackle energy and mobility needs, and reduce damage from climate-related disasters while improving urban air quality?

These questions require a systemic knowledge on the links between societal, environmental and economic trends. Prospective policy actions may also need to acknowledge region- and city-specific needs. For example, how can cities increase the energy efficiency of their existing buildings — which may even include some built in late 1800s?

Our objective, at the European Environment Agency, is to provide relevant and accessible knowledge to help policy makers and the public to act on timely, relevant and robust information. This means that our knowledge needs to grow wider and deeper, and evolve constantly to account for the systemic and complex nature of the challenges we face. In the case climate change, we are working towards a future knowledge platform to support the EU’s 2030 energy and climate objectives by better connecting existing knowledge, not only on climate and energy but also on other relevant domains like agriculture, transport and air quality.  

Ultimately, success will depend as much on informed policy decisions as the global will to bring an end to our dependence on fossil fuels. The Paris Agreement was a milestone in reinforcing the global commitment to tackle climate change, bringing governments, businesses and civil society together. Now the agreement remains to be implemented by all the countries that signed it. In this context, the upcoming Climate Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, should further the implementation effort by adopting a rulebook.

Hans Bruyninckx

Hans Bruyninckx
EEA Executive Director

The editorial published in the September 2018 issue of the EEA Newsletter 03/2018


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