Indicator Specification

Distribution shifts of plant and animal species

Indicator Specification
  Indicator codes: CLIM 022
Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 04 Oct 2021
10 min read
This page was archived on 04 Oct 2021 with reason: No more updates will be done
Trend in thermophilic species in bird and butterfly communities Projected change in climatically suitable areas for bumblebees

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)
  • No published assessments


Justification for indicator selection

Climate change affects ecosystems in complex ways. Many sites will experience a change in the composition and abundance of species. This change does not necessarily translate into species loss, but generalist species appear to be favoured over specialists. The composition of many plant communities is changing, often to such an extent that completely new assemblages are. The extinction risk is particularly large at the trailing edge (i.e. southern or lower altitudinal range margins) of a species. The ecological implications of these changes and their effects on the provision of ecosystems services are difficult to assess and quantify. However, it is clear that climate change is an important threat for long-term biodiversity conservation. It threatens the ability of meeting the EU policy target to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. In the longer term, the favourable status of Natura 2000 sites is also in danger. The negative effects of climate change not only are having an impact on habitats that already have an unfavourable conservation status, but also are likely to cause changes in habitats that presently have a favourable conservation status.

Shifts in the distribution of plant and animal species can have consequences for agriculture (crops and livestock), forestry, human health, biodiversity and its conservation, and ecosystem functions and services. The distribution of many animal species will be particularly affected by climate change if habitat fragmentation impedes their movement to more suitable climatic conditions. Northwards and uphill movements are taking place two to three times faster than previously reported. An increased extinction risk compared with previous findings is predicted, and is supported by observed responses to climate change. A ‘biotic homogenisation’ of specific ecological communities of European flora and fauna (i.e. losing regional uniqueness and characteristics) is projected. Looking at the Natura 2000 terrestrial species, amphibians are considered to be most vulnerable to climate change. For many invertebrates (with the exception of butterflies), not much is known about their response to climate change, as there is limited knowledge about their ecology or their present distribution.

The impacts of climate change on a single species can lead to disruptions or alterations of currently existing species interactions such as competition, herbivory, predation, parasitism, pollination and symbiosis. These interactions are affected because different species adapt their phenology (i.e. the timing of annual events) and their distributional range differently in response to climate change. Species interactions can further be disrupted by invasive species introduced as a result of human interference. Climate change can also affect disturbance regimes, such as wildfires and storms. Biodiversity is increasingly acknowledged as providing indispensable ecosystem services, such as increasing the resistance of ecosystem productivity to climate extremes. Therefore, the ‘EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020’ regards biodiversity as ‘our collective life insurance’.

An improved understanding of how climate change will affect species interactions in novel communities established under a novel climate can be utilised to assess the extinction risk of species of particular conservation concern. It will also enhance our ability to assess and mitigate potential negative effects on ecosystem functions and services. Despite increasing knowledge of the effects of climate change on pairwise species interactions and on complete ecological networks, quantitative assessments of these effects are still lacking.

Scientific references

  • No rationale references available

Indicator definition

  • Trend in thermophilic species in bird and butterfly communities
  • Projected change in climatically suitable areas for bumblebees


  • Trend of the Community Temperature Index (CTI, semi-qualitative)
  • Change in suitability (dimensionless)

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.

One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.

Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.

In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.


No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.


Methodology for indicator calculation

The Community Temperature Index (CTI) is a measure of the rate of change in community composition in response to temperature change.

Species distribution observations and models (also known as habitat models, niche models or envelope models) have been used to calculate the indicator.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

No methodology references available.


Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

External data references

Data sources in latest figures



Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

Observing range shifts (and projecting responses to climate change) crucially depends on good distributional data, which is better for popular groups of species than for other species. There are also large regional differences in the quality of observational data, with better data generally available in northern and western Europe than in southern Europe. As neither data quality nor lack of data is properly recorded, the true quality of projections of range shifts, as well as the likelihood of unobserved range shifts, is largely unknown. Some studies found unexpected results, such as range shifts of terrestrial plants towards lower elevations, which may be explained by the characteristics of local climate change or by taxonomic and methodological shortfalls identified in the simulation of range shifts.

Species distribution models (also known as habitat models, niche models or climate envelope models) suffer from a variety of limitations because species are currently not in equilibrium with climate, and because species dispersal and biotic interactions are largely ignored. Furthermore, climate change projections for Europe include climate conditions for which no analogue climate was available for the model calibration. Some models still do not include such climates, which may lead to misinterpretations of projected changes.

When documenting and modelling changes in soil, biodiversity and forest indicators, it is not always feasible to track long-term changes (signal) given the significant short-term variations (noise) that may occur (e.g. seasonal variations of soil organic carbon as a result of land management). Therefore, detected changes cannot always be causally attributed to climate change. Human activity, such as land use and management, can be more important for terrestrial ecosystem components than climate change, both for explaining past trends and for future projections.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel


European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
CLIM 022
Version id: 3

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years


DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)


Document Actions