Adapting to climate change - SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 26 Oct 2010 Published 25 Nov 2010
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Climate change is happening and will continue to have far-reaching consequences for human and natural systems. Impacts and vulnerabilities differ considerably across regions, territories and economic sectors in Europe. Strategies to adapt to climate change are necessary to manage impacts even if global temperature stays below a 2 °C increase above the pre-industrial level. The EU adaptation framework aims at developing a comprehensive strategy by 2013, to be supported by a clearinghouse for sharing and maintaining information on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation.



Why do we need to adapt to climate change?

Some climate change is inevitable because of past greenhouse gas emissions. The current global average temperature is about 0.7–0.8 °C above the pre-industrial level. Even if greenhouse gas concentrations had been stabilised in the year 2000, temperature would still increase by 1.2 °C above the pre-industrial level by the end of the 21st century. Strategies to adapt to climate change are therefore necessary. Temperature rises of 2 °C or more above the pre‑industrial level are likely to cause major disruptions. They would challenge our ability to adapt at affordable economic, social and environmental cost.

What are the impacts of climate change and the vulnerabilities of Europe?

The vulnerability to climate change varies significantly across regions and sectors in Europe, making adaptation a context- and location-specific challenge. Vulnerable regions include the Mediterranean basin, north‑western and central-eastern Europe and the Arctic, together with many coastal zones and other areas prone to river floods, mountains and cities. The costs of adaptation in Europe could potentially be large (possibly billions of euro per year in the medium- and long-term). Available assessments suggest that timely and proportionate adaptation makes economic, social and environmental sense, and is likely to be far less costly than inaction. The majority of projected impacts and vulnerabilities are, or are expected to be, negative, and these often need to be addressed proactively by public policies. The EEA therefore focuses on adverse effects. Impacts and vulnerabilities were identified for various regions.

  • Low-lying coastal areas across Europe could face major impacts due to sea level rise and a possible increased frequency of severe storm surges, particularly in north-western Europe. More and more intense winter and spring river floods are expected in this region.
  • A northward movement of species is expected due to higher sea surface temperatures.
  • Temperature increase is particularly high in mountain areas. Decrease of glacier mass, reduced snow cover, thawing of permafrost and changing precipitation patterns are expected to continue further. Plant and animal species face the risk of extinction due to barriers prohibiting them from moving upwards or northwards to more suitable habitats.
  • Cities and urban areas continue to be vulnerable to heat waves, flooding and droughts. These may have knock-on effects on infrastructure, public health and the economy.
  • The Mediterranean basin experienced decreased precipitation and increased temperature over past decades, and this trend is projected to worsen. Water availability and crop yields could decrease while droughts, biodiversity loss, forest fires and heat waves may increase.
  • The Arctic faces an accelerating decrease in summer sea ice cover. This trend is expected to continue. New business opportunities, such as enhanced oil and gas exploration, could cause additional environmental burdens.
  • Temperature extremes are projected to be a key impact in central and eastern Europe. In summer, reduced precipitation, an increased risk of droughts, and increasing energy demand are also anticipated. In winter and spring, the intensity and frequency of river floods may increase.
  • Less snow and lake and river ice cover are projected for northern Europe. At the same time, increased winter and spring river flows and greater damage by winter storms are expected. Climate change may offer certain short- and medium-term opportunities in this region, such as increased forest growth.

What is and can be done in support of successful adaptation policies and measures?

Effective adaptation needs to contemplate all possible climate conditions during the horizon of a policy decision. It should therefore consider no-regret measures (suitable under every plausible scenario) and a broad variety of adaptation options (i.e. grey or technological measures; green/ecosystem-based measures; and soft measures addressing behaviour, management and policies). Adaptation success factors and barriers (typically limited scientific knowledge and uncertainty) are being increasingly identified. Guidance for good practices and the development of adaptation indicators should be further advanced, and this could be usefully informed by regional assessments and case studies.

At a national level, European countries are often aware of the need to adapt to climate change. So far, 11 European countries, and a few regions and cities, have adopted adaptation strategies. The EEA keeps an overview of national adaptation strategies in its 32 member countries ( adaptation-strategies), and helps to transfer lessons learnt.

The EU plans to develop a European Clearinghouse on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation, to address the current lack of knowledge-sharing. Moreover, the European Commission adopted a White Paper on Adaptation to Climate Change in 2009 and plans to publish a Communication on Mainstreaming Adaptation and Mitigation in 2011. A comprehensive EU adaptation strategy is expected to be developed by 2013. Internationally, the EU supports particularly vulnerable developing countries under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).

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