By Jacqueline McGlade - 9th November 2012
Climate change has already caused a wide range of impacts on environmental systems and society
A new assessment on the impacts of climate change shows that Europe must prepare to adapt to significant environmental changes, says Jacqueline McGlade
On 21 November, the European environment agency (EEA) will publish a new assessment of climate change impacts and vulnerabilities in Europe. It underlines the fact that climate change has already caused a wide range of impacts on environmental systems and society. The report predicts further climate change impacts for Europe and shows that regional diversity will create a growing challenge as policy makers try to respond to different adaptation needs.
The environmental impacts vary from region to region. Arctic ecosystems are already showing many signs of change caused by temperature increases higher than the global average, rapid decreases in summer sea ice cover and widespread thawing of, and changes in, the permafrost are also disrupting infrastructure.
The effects are also being felt across northern Europe, with projections suggesting that there will be less snow, lake and river ice cover, greater damage by winter storms and increased winter and spring river flows. However, in the short to medium term, climate change could offer opportunities in northern Europe, such as increased crop variety and yields, enhanced forest growth, higher potential for electricity from hydropower, lower energy consumption for heating and possibly more summer tourism. But in the longer term, more frequent and intense extreme weather events could lead to adverse effects such as more variable crop yields.
In north-western Europe, there will be an increased risk of coastal flooding in low-lying coastal areas due to sea-level rises, increasingly frequent storm surges and more intense and frequent winter and spring river flooding.
Central and eastern Europe will also see changes, with temperature extremes projected to be a key factor. Combined with reduced summer precipitation, this will lead to an increased risk of drought, higher variability in crop yields and more forest fires. The intensity and frequency of river floods in winter and spring is projected to increase in various regions.
Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean basin, precipitation has decreased and the temperature has increased over several decades. This situation is expected to worsen. Water availability will decrease for agriculture, hydroelectric power and domestic use, which is projected to reduce crop yields and increase the risk of biodiversity loss, forest fires and heat waves. Additionally, conditions for summer tourism are expected to decline.
Cities are expected to become more exposed to the impacts of extreme events, such as flooding, droughts and heat waves, partly as a result of urban land take but also because of population growth and the vulnerability of an aging population.
In mountain areas, such as parts of Scandanavia, flooding is projected to become more intense and frequent, affecting people, ecosystems and infrastructure. Other impacts may include reduced winter tourism, lower energy potential from hydropower in southern Europe, a shift in vegetation zones and extensive biodiversity loss, while the retreat of the vast majority of glaciers will also affect water availability in downstream areas.
The European commission’s white paper on climate change adaptation (2009) underlined the scarce and fragmented nature of information on climate change impacts, vulnerability and the costs and benefits of adaptation measures in Europe. It recommended building a stronger knowledge base and taking climate change adaptation into consideration in key EU policies, using more spatially explicit information to develop adequate adaptation strategies
The European climate adaptation platform (Climate-Adapt), launched in March 2012 was created by the European commission and the European environment agency to help policymakers develop climate change adaptation measures and policies. One of the aims of Climate-Adapt is to support cooperation and planning of cross-border adaptation measures in regions with similar characteristics, such as mountains, as well as national and city-led climate adaptation programmes. Climate-Adapt can also help users access and share information on expected climate change, vulnerability, adaptation strategies and actions and case studies.
Although countries across the world have agreed to limit the increase in global mean temperature to less than two degrees centigrade to prevent the most severe impacts, current global actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to constrain the temperature increase to this level, and global warming could be well above it by 2100. In the Arctic, temperature increases have already exceeded this. Thus both mitigation and adaptation action and their ‘mainstreaming’ into policies in many different sectors will be needed in order to address the worst effects on human health and ecosystems.
Many countries in Europe have already adopted national adaptation strategies and some have followed up with specific action plans; the European commission will publish a European adaptation strategy in 2013, which will include further proposals for adaptation actions across the EU.
The EEA report and Climate-Adapt aim at providing a strong knowledge base for the development and implementation of adaptation strategies and actions at national, regional and EU levels.
Jacqueline McGlade is executive director of the European environment agency