An official report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) finds that climate change poses increasingly severe risks for ecosystems, human health, the economy and security in Europe. Hans-Martin Füssel, EEA Project Manager, summarizes the takeaways and explains how to apply the findings.
Hans-Martin Füssel: The European Environment Agency has recently published the report ‘Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016’. This report assesses the latest trends and projections on climate change and its impacts across Europe based on 35 indicators. It also reviews the development of adaptation policies at European, transnational and national levels as well as the development of the underlying knowledge base. We have published reports on climate change impacts in Europe every four years since 2004 but the new report includes, for the first time, a systematic review of multi-sectoral climate change assessments in Europe and of studies assessing Europe’s vulnerability to climate change impacts outside Europe.
What are the latest trends of key climate risks your report has identified?
Hans-Martin Füssel: We identified important new climate risk trendlines - while all the key findings from the previous EEA climate impacts report are still valid:
First, several long-term climate records have been broken in recent years. Global and European temperatures and global sea levels have established record high values in the years 2014–2016 whereas annual Arctic sea ice has established a record low value in 2016.
Second, there is more evidence of the links between global climate change and observed and projected changes in extreme weather events. Heat waves and heavy precipitation events, leading to floods, have become more pronounced in Europe, and global climate change is the main driver. Evidence of future increases in climatic hazards has also strengthened for droughts, top wind speeds and storm surges.
Third, the attribution of observed impacts to climate change has improved. For example, the rapid increase in potentially deadly Vibrio infections, particular in the Baltic Sea region, was triggered by unprecedentedly warm sea surface temperatures.
Finally, awareness of Europe's vulnerability to climate change impacts outside Europe has increased. Extreme droughts and other extreme climate events have acted as a “threat multiplier” in several cases in European neighbourhood countries, which have led to conflict and large-scale population displacement.
Could you elaborate on these transboundary risks?
This is interesting from a geopolitical stance, as it shows that Europe is not only at risk from climate change impacts that occur within but also outside of its boundaries. The pathways we identified through which Europe ‘imports’ climate impacts are: commodities trade, infrastructure, finance, human mobility and geopolitical and security risks. Regarding the latter, there is justifiable concern that climate change can increase the risk of armed conflict and geopolitical tensions in certain circumstances. For example, climate change may spark conflicts over rights and access to Arctic resources or transport routes as the ice melts.
Which are climate change hotspots in Europe?
Hans-Martin Füssel: The identification of climate change ‘hotspots’ unavoidably includes subjective evaluations of what is important and to whom. For example, a reinsurance company may focus on economic assets at risk whereas a humanitarian aid organization may focus on poor and vulnerable populations. As a result, global maps of climate change hotspots drawn up from these two perspectives will look very different.
All European regions are vulnerable to climate change, but the type and severity of impacts and the resulting adaptation needs vary strongly across regions, as does their capacity to adapt.
The most severe impacts across a number of sectors and systems are generally expected in southern and southeastern Europe. This region is already experiencing large increases in heat extremes and decreases in precipitation and river flows, which have heightened the risk of more severe droughts, lower crop yields, biodiversity loss and forest fires. More frequent heat waves and changes in the distribution of climate-sensitive infectious diseases are expected to increase risks to human health and well-being. This region is also disproportionally vulnerable to geopolitical risks from climate change impacts in North Africa and the Middle East.
Coastal areas and floodplains in western parts of Europe are also seen as hotspots as they face an increased risk of flooding from rising sea levels and a possible increase in storm surges. Climate change is also leading to major changes in marine ecosystems as a result of ocean acidification, warming and the expansion of oxygen-depleted dead zones.
What are lessons for policy-makers and policy integration regarding adaptation and resilience?
Hans-Martin Füssel: The extensive information in this 400-page EEA report can be used for the development of adaptation policies, from the European to the subnational level.
Adaptation to climate change does not occur in a silo. Moreover, climate change considerations need to be mainstreamed into other policies, from public health to regional development, disaster risk management and conflict prevention. Adaptation is often based on established measures from those policy areas, but climate change may affect their location, timing and urgency. Furthermore, some cases require more fundamental changes to economic activities or settlement structures, known as “transformational adaptation”.
Various examples of incremental and transformative adaptation from urban regions across Europe can be found in the EEA report, Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe 2016. More case studies as well as other information on climate change impacts and adaptation in Europe can be found on the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT), which is maintained jointly by the EEA and the European Commission.
The interview was conducted by Stella Schaller (adelphi).