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How will we be affected?

High temperatures

Global warming will have serious consequences for human health, biodiversity, ecosystems and the goods and services they provide, as well as for many social and economic sectors, including agriculture, tourism, and energy production.

Global warming, parched earth © iStockphoto

More frequent high-temperature extremes, such as hot days and nights and heat waves, as observed and projected, will affect human health. This could lead to an increase in the cases of temperature-related mortality, as already experienced in recent heat events.  Especially vulnerable sectors of the population, such as the elderly and infants, will be affected the most.

Warming is affecting the distribution and abundance of many plant and animal species (insects, birds), which already show problems in adapting to the changing climate. Mountain areas are particularly affected. The behaviour and phenology of animal and plant species is also changing: this could lead to greater numbers of pests, invasive species, and the incidence of certain human diseases, while the yields and the viability of agriculture and livestock, or the capacity of ecosystems to provide key services and goods (such as water reservoirs, natural erosion control) could be diminished.

Warmer temperatures increase the risk of desertification in southern parts of Europe, and they also cause a greater risk of droughts.

Temperature extremes will therefore affect sectors such as agriculture, tourism and energy production. Cities can face new challenges for supply of water and other basic resources.

Low-temperature extremes (cold spells, frosty days) could become less frequent in Europe, and milder winter temperatures might also reduce winter deaths. However, global warming affects the predictability of events and therefore our response capacity.

Water availability

Climate change is expected to affect water availability and increase water scarcity throughout Europe. Changes have been observed in river flows, with reductions in southern and eastern Europe, and increases or seasonal changes in other regions.

With fresh water originating mostly in mountain areas (e.g. 40% of Europe’s water comes from the Alps), changes in the snow and glacier dynamics and in precipitation patterns may lead to water shortages across Europe. These diminishing water supplies will also have a negative impact on hydroelectric power, which is the principal energy source for large areas of Europe.

Water scarcity, together with other climate change effects such as droughts, will have a direct impact on citizens, especially in highly urbanised or densely populated areas and the coast. Changes in water availability and quality will affect critical EU sectors such as tourism, agriculture, industry, energy, and transport. Environmental effects are expected to affect biodiversity, water quality, and aggravate the risk of forest fires, soil degradation and desertification.

Floods, droughts, landslides and other effects

In most of Europe, less precipitation in summer and rising temperatures will lead to more frequent and intense summer droughts. The Mediterranean region is already experiencing these effects, and is expected to suffer from more extreme droughts in the coming decades, together with other regions, such as central Europe.

Greater droughts, heat waves and dry spells across most of the Mediterranean region will increase the length and severity of the fire season, the area at risk and the probability of large fires, possibly enhancing desertification. Locations currently not prone to fires could experience this catastrophic hazard and become risk areas.

Windy waves at dusk © iStockphoto

Climate change will increase the chances of flooding in some regions of Europe. Flood damage is expected to rise across Europe. Meanwhile, some north-eastern parts will become less flood-prone due to a reduction in snow accumulation.

River floods are a common natural disaster in Europe, and along with storms have resulted in fatalities, affected millions of people and delivered massive direct economic losses in the last three decades. Climate change is likely to increase the occurrence and frequency of flooding across Europe in the coming years.

Heavy rainstorms are projected to become more common and more intense due to warmer temperatures. Flash floods and pluvial floods, triggered by local intense precipitation events, are expected to become more frequent throughout Europe.

In some regions, certain risks, such as early spring floods due to reduced snow accumulation during winter, could decrease in the short term, but new risks associated with climate change may offset positive effects in the medium term.

Sea-level rise and coastal areas

Sea level has been rising over the 20th century, and the tendency has accelerated in recent decades. This is due mostly to thermal expansion of the oceans as a result of warming, but also to extra water addition due to melting ice. As global temperatures rise, coasts will become more vulnerable to flooding and erosion.

Around a third of the EU population lives within 50km of the coast and these areas generate over 30% of the Union’s total GDP. The economic value of assets within 500m of Europe’s seas totals between €500-1,000 billion

Sea-level rise, together with other projected effects of climate change such as changes in the dynamics and energy distribution of waters or on the frequency and intensity of storm surges will increase the risk of flooding and erosion in coastal areas, with significant consequences for the people, infrastructure, businesses and nature in these areas.

Among other potential impacts, sea-level rise is projected to reduce the amount of available freshwater, as sea water pushes further into underground water-tables; it will likely lead also to much more saltwater intrusion into freshwater habitats, affecting biodiversity and the services and goods that coastal areas provide. Many wetlands areas will be lost, threatening unique bird and plant species.

There is a greater risk of flash flooding in mountain areas and their downstream valleys as a higher proportion of precipitation flows straight into river systems.