Are we ready for climate change?

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Article Published 30 Jun 2015 Last modified 11 May 2021
8 min read
Photo: © Billy Horan, Environment & Me/EEA
Climate change is causing a variety of impacts to our health, ecosystems and economy. These impacts are likely to become more serious in the coming decades. If not addressed, these impacts could prove very costly, in terms of ill health, adverse effects on ecosystems, and damaged property and infrastructure. Many adaptation projects are already underway across Europe to prepare for a changing climate.

2014 will be remembered across Europe for its extreme weather events. In May 2014, a low-pressure cyclone hit south-eastern Europe, causing widespread flooding and 2 000 landslides across the Balkans. Then in early June 2014, a series of heavy rainstorms hit northern Europe. By July 2014, Europe was suffering from another problem: heat. Eastern Europe and the UK experienced a heatwave.

Extreme weather events as well as gradual changes in the climate — such as rising sea levels and warming oceans — will continue. In fact, these events are expected to become more frequent and more intense in the future. Even if all countries were to radically cut their emissions of greenhouse gases today, the greenhouse gases that have already been released into the atmosphere would continue to have a warming effect on the climate. In addition to substantially reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, countries in Europe and across the world need to put in place policies and measures to adapt to climate change.

Europe’s climate is changing

A changing climate will affect almost every aspect of our lives. Increased intensity and frequency of rainfall in many parts of Europe will mean frequent and serious flooding events, destroying homes and affecting other infrastructure (e.g. transport and energy) in risk areas. Elsewhere in Europe, including in southern Europe, higher temperatures and reduced rainfall will mean that many areas might face droughts. This could create competition between agriculture, industry, and households for scarce water resources. It could also create more heat-related health problems.

Climate change will also affect ecosystems across Europe. Many economic sectors depend on healthy and stable ecosystems to provide a variety of products and services to humans. For example, bees pollinate our crops, while forests help to absorb greenhouse gases. Changes to the balance of species and habitats in ecosystems could have wide-reaching effects. A reduction in rainfall in southern Europe could make it impossible to grow certain crops, while higher temperatures might allow alien invasive species and species that carry diseases to migrate northwards.

Warmer oceans are already forcing various fish species to move northward, which in turn puts further pressure on the fisheries sector. For example, the northward shift in mackerel stocks has exacerbated the already existing problem of overfishing of herring and mackerel in the Northeast Atlantic.

Climate change has a cost

Extreme weather events can result in loss of life, and bring economic and social activity in the affected area to a halt. Substantial funds are often required for rebuilding damaged property and infrastructure. However, most of the damage from extreme weather events in recent decades cannot be attributed to climate change alone. Socio-economic developments, and decisions such as expanding cities towards floodplains, are the main causes of the increased damage. But without adaptation actions, damage costs and other adverse effects are projected to increase as our climate continues to change.

The costs of future climate change are potentially very large. Recent research estimates that without adaptation actions, heat-related deaths could reach about 200 000 per year in Europe by 2100, and the cost of river flood damages could be more than EUR 10 billion a year. In the case of extensive climate change and no adaptation actions, forest fires could affect an area of roughly 800 000 hectares every year. The number of people affected by droughts could also increase by a factor of seven to about 150 million per year, and economic losses due to sea-level rise would more than triple to EUR 42 billion a year.

Although climate change is mostly expected to create costs for society, it may also create a limited number of new opportunities, which often come with new risks. Warmer winters in northern Europe might mean a reduced need for winter heating. On the other hand, warmer summers might increase the energy consumed for cooling. With sea ice melting, Arctic sea lanes might be opened to shipping and thus cut transport costs. But increased shipping might expose the Arctic to pollution and should be regulated to ensure that it is safe and clean.

Whatever the projected impacts are, be it more rain, higher temperatures, or less freshwater, European countries need to adapt their rural landscape, cities, and economy to a changing climate and reduce our vulnerability to climate change.

What is ‘climate change adaptation’?

‘Adaptation’ covers a wide range of activities and policies that seek to prepare societies for a changing climate. When adaptation policies are implemented they can reduce the impacts and damage costs of climate change, and prepare societies to thrive and develop in a changed climate. Some of these actions have a relatively low cost, such as information campaigns on how to stay cool in warm weather or an early-warning system for heatwaves. Other adaptation actions can be very expensive, such as building dykes and coastal defences (such construction measures are often referred as ‘grey adaptation’), relocating houses out of flood-plains, or expanding retention basins to respond to droughts.

Some adaptation measures involve using natural methods to increase an area’s resilience to climate change. Such ‘green adaptation’ actions include restoring sand-dunes to prevent erosion or planting trees on river banks to reduce flooding. The city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands has implemented green adaptation measures of this sort. The Waal River bends and narrows around Nijmegen, causing floods in this coastal city. To prevent the damage from these floods, the city is building a canal, giving the river more room to flow. This also creates new spaces for recreation and for nature.  

The Dutch Building with Nature programme is another good example of the combination of grey and green adaptation. It has promoted the restoration of coastal wetlands such as swamps, reedbeds, marshes, and mudflats. These wetland areas help to prevent soil subsidence thanks to the root structures of wetland plants. By preventing soil subsidence at coastal areas, this protects the surrounding area from flooding.

Other adaptation measures consist of using laws, taxes, financial incentives and information campaigns to enhance resilience to climate change (measures knowns as ‘soft adaptation’). An information campaign in Zaragoza, Spain, made the city’s 700 000 inhabitants more aware of the need to use water sparingly to survive the lengthier droughts expected for this semi-arid region. Coupled with control of leakage from the water supply distribution network, the project has almost halved daily water use per person compared with 1980, and the city's total water consumption has fallen by 30% since 1995.

Adaptation in the European Union

The European Union and its Member States are already working on climate change adaptation. In 2013, the European Commission adopted the communication ‘An EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change’, which helps countries plan their adaptation activities. The Strategy also promotes the creation and sharing of knowledge, and aims to enhance resilience in key sectors by using EU funds. More than 20 European countries have already adopted adaptation strategies, outlining initial actions they will take (e.g. vulnerability assessments and research) and how they intend to adapt to a changing climate. However, in terms of concrete action on-the-ground, many countries are still at a very early stage.

An EEA survey of adaptation measures showed that water management is the sector that most countries are prioritising. However, countries also direct resources to providing information to their citizens. For example, as part of its efforts to reduce the spread of insect-borne diseases, the region of Emilia Romagna runs an awareness campaign on the dangers of Lyme disease, dengue, and West Nile disease.

Many countries have created online adaptation-knowledge platforms to facilitate the sharing of transnational, national, and local experiences and good practice. The Climate-ADAPT portal, managed by the European Environment Agency and the European Commission, provides a European platform for sharing such experiences.

Not adapting is not a viable option

Extreme weather events and EU policies have placed adaptation policies and measures higher on the political agenda in European countries in recent decades. However, according to a recent survey, many countries are prevented from taking action by a lack of resources such as time, money, or technology. 'Uncertainties about the extent of future climate change' and 'unclear responsibilities' were also seen as barriers by a large number of countries.

The effects of climate change vary from region to region. Policymakers also face the difficulty of incorporating future changes in wealth, infrastructure, and population into their climate-change adaptation plans. What will an increasingly older and urbanised population need in terms of transport, housing, energy, health services, or simply food production, in a changing climate?

Rather than treating adaptation as a separate policy sphere, adaptation can best be implemented through better integration into every other area of public policy. Within their adaptation strategies, EU countries and the European Union are exploring how they can integrate adaptation concerns into different policy spheres such as agriculture, health, energy, or transport.

Extreme weather events in particular show that not adapting is a very costly decision and is not a viable option in the medium and long term. For example, transport infrastructure is often severely damaged in floods. When movement of people, goods, or services is hindered, the indirect costs to the economy can be many times higher than the direct cost of damaged transport infrastructure.

It is clear that, like many other infrastructure projects, adapting transport infrastructure is costly. It may also be difficult because the transport system involves different groups, from vehicle manufacturers to infrastructure managers to passengers. One cost-efficient solution is to consider adaptation measures when infrastructure is built or renewed, and the EU budget offers different funding opportunities to support infrastructure projects.

An effective solution requires a longer-term and wider perspective with the integration of climate change into different public policies around sustainability. In the case of climate change adaptation, this raises questions about how to build our cities, how to transport people and products, how to supply energy to our homes and factories, how to produce our food, and how to manage our natural environment.

It is also clear that an effective combination of adaptation and mitigation measures can help to ensure that future impacts of climate change are limited, and that when they do come, Europe is better prepared and more resilient.

Climate change is causing a variety of impacts to our health, ecosystems and economy. These impacts are likely to become more serious in the coming decades. If not addressed, these impacts could prove very costly, in terms of ill health, adverse effects on ecosystems, and damaged property and infrastructure.


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