Impacts of and adaptation to climate change in Europe

Speech Published 07 Oct 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by André Jol, Head of Group, Climate Change and Energy, European Environment Agency. European Conference on Applied Climatology, European Meteorological Society, Amsterdam, 29 September 2008.

Climate change is real and happening now. Today I would like to talk about climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation in Europe, and the role of the European Environment Agency.

 Global action on climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown that not only do we have a global temperature increase of almost 0.8 °C, above pre-industrial levels, in 2007, but also:

  • 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, and is expected to have negative impacts on marine shell-forming organisms and their dependent species
  • 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 about 180 to 300ppm).
  • To avoid major irreversible impacts on society and ecosystems, and achieve the EU target of a maximum 2 °C increase above pre industrial levels, urgent action is needed.
  • To achieve this we need global greenhouse gas emission reductions of at least 50 % by the middle of this century, and actions to adapt to the climate change which is already taking place.

Many impacts of climate change will first be felt in developing countries, whose poor may be the least able to cope. However, adaptation is also essential here in developed countries. A key response to climate change will be a move towards a low carbon economy.

To achieve this we need to significantly increase global investment and technological development and transfer to developing countries. Not to mention significant attempts to reduce deforestation. For a post-2012 climate change agreement to be reached in Copenhagen in 2009 all these elements should be included. In addition we need to empower business and citizens on what they can do through relevant and robust information.

EEA-JRC-WHO report overview

The organisation I represent - 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.

Today, we are proud to publish the latest report on climate change impacts in Europe. The report, developed jointly with the Commissions Joint Research Centre and the World Health Organisation Europe, has three objectives:

  • Through indicators, present new information on past and projected climate change and its impacts.
  • To identify the sectors and regions most vulnerable to climate change, and therefore need adaptation.
  • And to highlight the need for enhanced monitoring, improved knowledge on adaptation and reduce the uncertainties in modeling.

European research has advanced considerably, making a major contribution to key assessments such as prepared by the IPCC. Our report builds on these strong foundations with the latest research results for Europe.

Key climate change trends in Europe

Indicators are essential in our report and it includes approximately 40 on atmosphere and climate, the cryosphere, marine systems, biodiversity, agriculture and forestry, soil, water, and human health. I will consider some of these indicators and our results further.

Atmosphere and climate

Apart from an increase in average temperature, in Europe more frequent and more intense heat extremes have occurred in the past 50 years.

Northern Europe has become wetter as the south dries up! In addition, the intensity of heavy rain events, and frequency of dry periods, has increased over the last 50 years.


Our report confirms that European glaciers are melting rapidly and snowcover has decreased! The subsequent changes in the hydrological cycle, in particular in river flow and seasonality, will have significant consequences. I will come back to that point later.

The reduction in Arctic sea ice in summer has accelerated with a record low extent in September 2007….half the normal minimum of the 1950s. Arctic sea ice may even disappear at the height of the melting season in the coming decades, creating a feedback that will further increase global climate change. Species specialised for life in the ice are threatened.

Oil and gas exploration, shipping, tourism and fisheries might offer new economic opportunities, but will also greatly increase risks to the unique Arctic environment. 

The Greenland ice sheet has lost ice since the 1990s, and its contribution to sea level rise has increased.

There are indications of an accelerated flow of outlet glaciers, but projections for the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets remain uncertain. A certainty is that sea level is rising, which has consequences, e.g; flooding, coastal erosion and the loss of flat and low-lying coastal regions.

In low lying countries like the Netherlands the increased likelihood of storm surges, landward intrusion of salt water and survival of coastal ecosystems and wetlands is critical. In this regard planning for adaptation is essential. For example the recent advice to the Dutch Government on flood protection and flood risk management assumed a rise in the next century of up to 1.3m, in contrast the IPCC’s upper estimate is about 0.6m.

However, some in the scientific community believe the IPCC’s estimate is conservative as it has not taken into account the accelerated loss of outlet glaciers.

Marine biodiversity and ecosystems

The effects on the marine environment are clear, in particular with earlier seasonal cycles of 4–6 weeks, and a northward movement of fish species by up to 1.100km over the past 40 years! These changes will profoundly affect marine ecosystems and biodiversity. At the human level fishermen can expect to see a further reduction in North Sea cod stocks.

Water quantity, river floods and droughts

I promised to return to the hydrological cycle. River flows in Europe have increased in the north and decreased in the south. Lower flows in summer and higher flows in winter are projected. As a consequence, river droughts and water stress will increase, particularly during the summer in the south.

Our report shows that over the past 30 years, Europe has already been affected by a number of major droughts. Further, the projections are for a future of more floods AND more droughts.

What does this mean to fresh water quality and biodiversity?

With the projected increase in lake and river surface water temperatures there is evidence of a movement of freshwater species northwards. Alarmingly spring phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms are now observed up to one month earlier than 30–40 years ago. 

In this context climate change may favour the dominance of harmful cyanobacteria, threatening human health and the ecological status of lakes.

Terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity

Plants, birds, insects, mammals and other animal groups are moving northwards and uphill.  By the end of this century, plant species are projected to have shifted several hundred kilometers to the north. In this scenario 60 % of mountain plant species may face extinction, and the rate of change and landscape fragmentation will exceed the ability of many species to adapt.

We know that climate change has caused advancement in the life cycles of many animal groups, such as the arrival of migrant birds, and populations may crash if the emergence of young is not in synch with their food source.


Soil is as important an environmental media, as air and water, but not as well understood. BUT:

  • We do know that projected soil moisture loss in the Mediterranean region, due to climate change, will have a significant adverse impact on soil biota and erosion.
  • Soil is a hugely significant carbon dioxide sink and any future decline in soil organic carbon will lead to significant release of greenhouse gases.

Agriculture and forestry

In Europe the growing season is changing. It is now longer and more northerly. This may favour the introduction of new crops and some may view this as a positive side to climate change. However, because extreme events are projected to increase in frequency and magnitude, crop yields will become more variable.

Water demand for agriculture in the Mediterranean region will increase unsustainable competition for water with tourism and households.

Forests are also changing due to the changing growing season and the danger of forest fires will increase in southern Europe.

Human health

It will come as no surprise that with more extreme temperatures we will also have more heats waves, similar to what we witnessed in 2003!  This is just part of the story. A number of infectious diseases are expected to increase in the near future;

  • The tiger mosquito, transmitting various viruses, has extended its range in Europe substantially over the past 15 years and is projected to extend even further.
  • Ticks, which are vectors for Lyme disease and encephalitis, are moving into higher altitudes and latitudes.
  • Water- and food-borne disease outbreaks are expected to become more frequent.

Adaptation challenges – what can we do?

For many regions and sectors impacts are expected to be adverse. The main vulnerable areas in Europe are mountainous regions, coastal zones, the Mediterranean and the Arctic.

We will need pro-active adaptation measures to moderate effects. Part of this process, which we support, is the European Commission adaptation white paper, due in late 2008.

In parallel national adaptation strategies are being developed or implemented many countries; Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Sadly, even if we are now aware of the need for adaptation in Europe, many of today’s adaptation activities are still focused on flood management and defence.

In this context there is a need for action in other sectors. For example, other measures could include:

  • health and heat action plans,
  • health system planning,
  • water scarcity risk management,
  • land use planning, and,
  • greening of cities

Challenges for monitoring and research

Information, which is accessible, up to date and relevant, is the key to helping us all make better decisions on what actions we should take. To better prepare we need better and more local data. For many impacts the information availability has improved, but still varies considerably between regions.

There are national monitoring and data collection programmes for a number of the 'Essential Climate Variables' defined by World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as part of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS).

However, we should improve the European archive of the past 50 years of climate data with a more detailed re-analysis.

Further, for many climate change impact indicators there are no regular Europe-wide monitoring programmes.

In addition, more spatially detailed impacts information is needed to develop adequate adaptation strategies.

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.

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.

A key new proposal in this approach is for a European Clearing House on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation, which could make information widely available to potential users across Europe.

It should be developed consistent with existing systems, in particular WISE, the Water Information System for Europe and the EU Biodiversity Clearing House, which the EEA maintains together with the Commission; the WHO Climate, Environment and Health Information System (CEHAIS) and JRC’s data centres.


Our report confirms that climate change is a reality and that there are ways in which we can adapt to it, while also continuing actions to reduce emissions. However, if we are to bring about real improvement, we need to find new ways to inform and involve citizens across the EU. We need more and better information on good practice and effectiveness of adaptation actions and their costs.

Our latest report is part of that process. In particular we recognise that adaptation involves all levels of decision-making, from municipalities to international organisations, and needs involvement of the business sector.

Climate change is cross-sectoral and transboundary and requires comprehensive integrated approaches. A European Clearing House on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation could help to make information widely available.

The EEA is committed to work together with the meteorological community and our environment organisation’s network in member countries to strengthen the links between these communities.

Thank you.



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