Europe is not prepared to cope with the effects of climate change, the world’s leading climate scientists said in a landmark report published on Monday.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Continent’s failure to plan is likely to result in higher death tolls from heat waves, wider swaths of land lost to sea-level rise and greater damage to ecosystems and economies.
While countries, cities and communities in Europe are taking some action to adapt to climate change, “it is not implemented at the scale, depth and speed needed to avoid the risks,” the scientists write.
Their assessment of the impact on Europe is part of a larger report looking at the consequences of global warming and the world’s options to adapt.
Years in the making, with input from thousands of scientists from across the globe, the report underscores that action to sharply reduce emissions must go hand-in-hand with adaptation measures if humanity is to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The authors highlight that global warming will widen the divide between rich and poor countries — with significant implications for climate politics — but found that in Europe, too, impacts are hitting some harder than others.
Already, “inequalities have deepened” among regions and societal groups, they write. Alongside negative effects, Northern Europe may experience some “short-term benefits,” like higher crop yields, even if those gains can’t offset the expected climate-related losses in overall agricultural production across the Continent.
But in Southern Europe, “largely negative impacts are projected.”
That split is already complicating policymaking on climate in Brussels. The EU’s Green Deal is so far largely focused on slashing emissions, even if the Commission last year presented an adaptation strategy for the bloc.
EU countries most vulnerable to climate change — like Spain — say current climate legislation proposals don’t take into account how different countries will be affected.
“Climate change, for us and for the rest of Europe, is a potential source of inequalities between European countries, between European regions and also between local areas,” said Valvanera Ulargui, director of the climate change office of Spain’s ecological transition ministry.
“When you look at the Fit for 55 package” — the sweeping set of legislative proposals presented by the Commission last summer — “we miss this analysis, we miss this assessment,” she added. Spain has raised concerns over the carbon sequestration targets proposed by the Commission, saying they do not take into account increasingly arid conditions in the country.
Worsening climate impacts may also prompt calls for EU aid. Most EU climate spending is going toward measures to reduce emissions and not adaptation, the IPCC report notes, and with rising temperatures, “financing needs are likely to increase.”
Earlier this month, Portugal and Spain urged the Commission to consider supporting their agricultural sector with direct payments as well as exemptions from green farming rules.
The Iberian Peninsula is currently experiencing an extreme winter drought; in Portugal, February rainfall levels were just 7 percent of the 30-year average, and more than 90 percent of the country is suffering from severely arid conditions.
Scientists have said this drought should be seen in the context of climate change, with rising temperatures increasing the severity and frequency of dry spells.
The IPCC report warns that once global average temperatures hit 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, more than a third of Southern Europeans will be exposed to water scarcity. Current pledges to tackle climate change this decade have the world on track for 2.4 degrees of warming.
From 3 degrees, the scientists say, Europe’s ability to adapt to water scarcity risks “becomes increasingly difficult” and “hard limits are likely first reached in parts of Southern Europe.”
At that stage, people and health systems in Southern and Eastern Europe will also face adaptation limits related to heat stress.
Beyond water shortages and heat waves affecting the health of humans and ecosystems, the report identifies agricultural losses and the impact of floods on people, economies and infrastructure as key risks to Europe.
In theory, there’s plenty Europe can do to prepare, from updating sewer systems to cope with flooding to fitting buildings with cooling systems to deal with extreme heat.
But across the Continent, the authors warn, “observed adaptation actions are largely incremental,” with systemic measures — such as the floodproofing of Hamburg’s old port quarter — few and far between.
Although policymakers have started taking adaptation seriously, massive gaps remain between plans for action and implementation, they add. For example, 14 countries have strategies for climate-proofing their energy sectors and another 15 are working on plans, but just five countries have put measures into practice.
And even in rich Europe, the poorest may struggle to cope. Heat-related health risks, for example, have a greater effect on marginalized groups, with low-income households less likely to afford air-conditioning and social housing often located in what scientists call “urban heat islands.”
On social equity issues, “European climate change adaptation strategies and national policies are generally weak,” the authors write.
As for the EU, Brussels needs to ensure intra-European “climate cohesion” much like it works to reduce economic and social disparities under its regional policy, Spain’s Ulargui said.
The bloc has yet to start discussing “how the different regions are impacted,” she said. “The capacities to cope with the impact will be very different. And we need to translate that into an informed debate.”
Karl Mathiesen contributed reporting.