Adaptation to climate change in Europe

Speech Published 07 Oct 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency, at the European Meteorological Society European Conference on Applied Climatology, Amsterdam, 2 October 2008.

If we want our markets and our citizens to take the right decisions we need to ensure that we develop transparent information and evaluation of policy efficiency.

Prof. Jacqueline McGlade

In the recent past the scientific community has had to work hard to raise awareness about the reality of climate change.

Today, as a consequence, climate change is seldom out of the headlines. Importantly, this recognition of our work has led to the political realisation that urgent action is needed, not only for climate change mitigation, but also adaptation.

I am very pleased to be here today to talk about climate change adaptation in Europe, and the role we can play by encouraging better decisions through better information and co-operation.

Introduction: a need for global action

As you will all know, data used in climate science is wide ranging and complex. But the trends, as observed by the IPCC in 2007, are unequivocal. Climate change is a reality, indicated by a global temperature increase of almost 0.8 °C above pre-industrial levels.

  • Since 1850, and the start of a global surface temperature record, eleven of the twelve warmest years have occurred from 1995 to 2006.
  • The ocean is becoming more acidic, due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which will have an impact on marine shell-forming organisms and their dependent species
  • Global sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8mm per year from 1961 to 2003, and increased to 3.1mm per year from 1993 to 2003.
  • As a result of emissions from human activities, carbon dioxide concentrations are now 387ppm, far exceeding the natural range from the last 650,000 years - of 180 to 300ppm.

We must act now to avoid major irreversible impacts on society and ecosystems. Nicholas Stern's report, The Economics of Climate Change, stated that "Climate change … is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen".

Of course our environment is influenced by massive global and national factors. But it is also affected by the daily actions, no matter how small, of each and every citizen. If we want our markets and our citizens to take the right decisions we need to ensure that we develop transparent information and evaluation of policy efficiency.

The organisation I direct - the European Environment Agency - has a key role in ensuring the EU and its citizens can make the changes our environment needs. We are required to support sustainable development and help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

Key climate change trends

This week the EEA, in conjunction with the Commissions Joint Research Centre and the World Health Organisation Europe, released our latest indicator report on climate change impacts.

Our report, based on 40 indicators, gives us further evidence on climate change trends in Europe, many of which are projected to continue;

  • We have observed increases in the number of hot and cold extremes, and the intensity and variability of precipitation extremes.
  • We have rapid melting of the European glaciers and sea ice - Having recently returned from Greenland I can testify to this.
  • A significant change in the fluvial system and distribution across North and South Europe. But flooding and drought will both increase!
  • Sea level rise.

Adaptation challenges – what can we do?

We are all aware that climate change is happening and we can’t completely avoid the effects. Even if we achieve the EU target of a global temperature increase of 2 °C by 2050, there will always be residual impacts. The main vulnerable areas in Europe where impacts are expected to be worse are mountainous regions, coastal zones, the Mediterranean and the Arctic.

In light of this it is encouraging to see progress on adaptation in the EU. The European Commission is developing a white paper on a 'European adaptation strategy' for the end of this year. In parallel national adaptation strategies are being developed or implemented by many countries such as Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Some of the emerging policy measures and responses include:

  • health and heat action plans,
  • coastal and flood defences,
  • natural hazard monitoring,
  • reinforcing the built environment,

BUT - Even if we are taking the lead in Europe, many of today's adaptation activities are still focused on hard engineering, flood management and defence.

It is also evident that climate change vulnerability and adaptation are insufficiently considered in the development of the policy areas that will be most affected, such as biodiversity and ecosystems and freshwater.

Ecosystems and biodiversity: impacts and adaptation

Ecosystems are especially vulnerable and climate change is an additional pressure to deforestation, fragmentation and pollution. Fish, plants, birds, insects, mammals and other animal groups are moving northwards and, where possible, uphill.

This is very significant as we know ecosystems play a key role in regulating the global climate system. For example, rain forests and oceans that store huge amounts of carbon. Ecosystems provide many other services, such as fresh, clean water, food and medicines. Protecting biodiversity and tackling climate change require that we protect our ecosystems and enhance their ability to provide the services on which society and the environment depend, but this must also be sustainable.

For example: planetary engineering by 'iron seeding' our oceans for algae, or planting trees in peat bogs, might enhance the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but it can also destroy unique ecosystems on which we depend. Over the last 25 years Europe has built up a vast network of over 26,000 protected areas covering all the Member States representing more than 20% of total EU territory.

These sites, known as the 'Natura 2000 network', is the largest coherent network of protected areas in the world.

We know that the ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network, as well as habitat quality, is essential for the long-term survival of many species and habitats.

At the global level, if temperatures increase by 1.5 to 2.5 degrees, the IPCC has estimated that 20-30% of species globally would be at risk of extinction. Alarmingly this could be as high as a 40-70% extinction rate with a 3.5 degree rise. It is clear to me that ensuring that biodiversity and ecosystems can adapt to climate change is a good strategy for us to adapt. One cannot exist without the other!

Fresh water management and adaptation

Water is essential to us all but its availability across Europe varies significantly. Worse, our report confirms that climate change will continue this process. The Water Exploitation Index is a good example of the sort of information needed to give an overview of the scale and location of the problems facing us.

An index of over 10 % is normally taken to indicate water scarcity. As we can see, 17 member countries of the EEA have water exploitation indices above 10 %, some significantly so, for example Cyprus with over 50 %. There are many different human activities that lead to pressures on water resources; pollution from industry, management of rivers, building of houses in areas with flood risk, to name but a few.

In addition, increases in water temperatures and lower river flows, will lead to a decrease of water quality. This shows the complexity in achieving sustainable water management and the need establish the right policy responses. It also explains why we are witnessing many poor policy responses to climate change and adaptation.

For example, this summer Barcelona planned to ship in water to cope with a serious drought. At a cost of €22m, six shiploads would have arrived each month for three months, from Tarragona in southern Catalonia, Marseille and Almeria - one of the driest areas of southern Spain.

Another illustration of potentially unsustainable action is the rapid increase in desalinisation plants across Europe, which are not only energy inefficient, but expensive!

Importantly, these costs and the economic consequences of climate change can be an important driver for action. Since 1980, 90 % of all the natural disasters in Europe were directly or indirectly attributable to weather and climate. If we consider that the economic losses as a consequence of extreme flood events in 2002 were more than EUR 17 billion, it is clear that adaptation could make economic sense.

Through river basin management plans and flood risk management the EU Water Framework Directive is well-suited to address climate change adaptation through its step-wise and cyclical approach, but its success in this area will depend on the extent to which a longer-term perspective is included.

Challenges for monitoring, research and information systems

The scale of tacking climate change is enormous. However, if we, and our respective communities, work together and co-operate with our information, we can have the right information at the right time and the right level to make the right policy choices and empower citizens.

For example, the EEA recently launched an online portal, with the working title of the Global Observatory for Environmental Change, that will gather and present European environmental information into one place. It will provide this information — from the global perspective to the view from the street, on all environmental media — at levels of detail previously unseen in environmental information. The Observatory will provide an easily accessible and understandable resource for governments, policy-makers and citizens to access meaningful data in real time.

But this can only be part of the story. Our indicator report on climate change impacts illustrated that there is a need for:

  • Enhanced monitoring of climate change, and in particular its effects on society and the environment.
  • Climate-change impact scenarios at the appropriate level of spatial detail.
  • Better understanding of the socio-economic and institutional aspects of vulnerability and adaptation.
  • Information on good practices of adaptation actions, in synergy with mitigation actions, and their costs.

However, for many climate change impact indicators there are no regular Europe-wide monitoring programmes. There are national monitoring and data collection programmes for a number of the 'Essential Climate Variables' defined by World Meteorological Organisation as part of the Global Climate Observing System. 

But to make this work everyone needs access to the same information cost free!

Through co-ordinated efforts, from all interested communities, systems could be improved in a way consistent with Kopernikus (previously known as GMES - Global Monitoring and Environmental Security) which is driven by the needs of its users, and the information it provides is a public good.

Kopernikus uses satellites and other sensors on the ground to monitor our natural environment. The information provided through Kopernikus will help us understand better how, and in what way, our planet may be changing, why this is happening, and how this might influence our daily lives.

This, along with the new EU INSPIRE Directive, the Shared Environmental Information System for Europe and the Global Climate Observing System could fill key data and information gaps.

In addition, a key new proposal for a European Clearing House on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation could make information widely available to potential users across Europe. This should be developed consistent with existing systems, in particular; the WHO Climate, Environment and Health Information System (CEHAIS) and JRC's data centres.


The EEA is committed to work together with the meteorological community and partners to strengthen the links between all our networks and data. Our report, in conjunction with the work by the IPCC, illustrates the trends in climate change, and importantly, the gaps in our knowledge. It is with respect to these gaps that we need to better co-ordinate our respective communities. For example:

  • Vulnerability and adaptation data needs are far less clear compared to climate data needs.  
  • Adaptation policies are insufficiently embedded in the areas most affected: biodiversity, agriculture, forestry, energy, health etc

Here transparent evaluation of policy is crucial. But we need more and better information on the effectiveness and the costs of the different measures. Crucially, if we are to achieve this we need the allow the public, who are often best placed to monitor effects on the environment, a role in the information process.

We need to harness this local knowledge through 'interactive' processes to supplement systems such as Kopernicus.

It is clear to me that if we are to bring about real improvement in our environment, we need to find new ways to inform and involve citizens in something that is critical to our shared future.

Thank you.



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