Climate change impacts on the water cycle, resources and quality
Scientists, water managers and policy-makers gathered in Brussels on 25-26 September 2006 to discuss the impact of climate change on water and to analyse the results of EU-funded projects which have conducted research in this area. Two full days of workshops and discussions yielded plenty of interesting ideas for experts drawing up new environmental legislation.
This event, co-organised by the Environment and Research DGs and the Joint Research Centre, is a clear indicator of the importance that the Commission attaches to the issue of climate change. Together, and in close cooperation with experts from across the EU, these DGs can bring researchers and policy-makers together to cooperate in an effective manner.
The event provided a unique opportunity for experts to assess whether there is sufficient sound scientific evidence on which to base new policies. Specialist workshops were dedicated not only to the environmental challenges that scientists and policy-makers face, but also to the socio-economic repercussions that rising temperatures will inevitably have.
Conference delegates discussed the outcome of recent research on climate change and water, and outlined new priorities for more research funded under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which will kick off in 2007 and run until 2013. The programme will include a range of environment-related research activities focusing on climate change, pollution and risks, sustainable management of resources, environmental technologies, earth observation and assessment tools. The results of this work will support European research, policies and initiatives and also help the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to advise governments around the world on responsible courses of action.
Climate models projecting different scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions indicate a warming of the planet by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius over the next century. This change in climate will have a significant impact on the hydrological cycle, increasing evaporation and the intensity of water cycling, and resulting in greater amounts of moisture in the air. As a result, extreme weather events will become more frequent, and the rising demand for water in the agriculture and hydrologic power sectors will further increase Europe’s vulnerability to drought.
Of particular concern are the changes in the ocean circulation and the impact this has on the continent. Continental systems make coastal regions especially vulnerable. The changing hydrological cycle and ensuing floods and droughts have ecological consequences, destroying natural habitats and driving entire species to extinction.
To what extent will climate change interact with the pollution recovery process? It may lead to falling oxygen concentration and cause food chain effects by bringing toxic substances back into contact with the food chain. To what extent will ecosystems be pushed to the point of no return? These and many more questions were addressed at the two-day conference. Some participants also reminded delegates that the connection with land cover is equally important and is fast becoming a pressing issue: climate changes cause significant soil reactions and have an impact on farming.
The EU aims to reduce its carbon emissions between 15% and 30% by 2020, and between 60% and 80% by 2050. These ambitious goals, which ultimately aim to limit the global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels, call for new technologies and policies.
At policy level, the EU Water Framework Directive was designed to tackle an issue that is of great concern to EU citizens: water pollution. It aims to clean up polluted waters in Europe, and keep them clean. European water legislation has been in place for 30 years, but the 2000 Water Framework Directive really reflects the involvement of citizens.
But does this legal instrument cover issues of climate change, and is it flexible enough to respond to them? The final session of the conference concluded that the Water Framework Directive offers some leeway to cope with the challenges that accompany climate change, despite its limited planning cycle of 10-30 years.
Policies alone cannot halt the effects of climate change, but with the help of research results the Commission’s seemingly lofty goals are within reach. FP7 has made climate change a priority and FP6 has already answered key questions on how climate change impacts on the water cycle. Examples of projects funded under FP6 include WATCH, which evaluates the response of the global water cycle to climate change, and FLASH, which provides information needed for short-term forecasting of flash floods.
The drive towards a cut in greenhouse gas emissions comes at a price, and sceptics have not passed up on the opportunity to slam cash-consuming policies. But economic analysis quickly dispels the myth that fighting climate change will ruin our economies. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by 30% by 2025 compared to 1990 levels will cost the EU no more than 0.5% of its GDP in 2025. Taking into account the magnitude of the effects of further climate change, this is a more than reasonable price to pay.
And what exactly are those economic implications? The conference concluded that climate change might be an issue for the global economy, in particular for certain sectors. But it is certainly a major economic issue in certain regions. To address them efficiently, the economic effects need to be broken down.
Therefore, a regional approach is needed on all fronts. Climate change cannot be tackled at a global scale, and neither can the economic repercussions of climate change. The potential impacts of climate change for ecological systems, water supply, food production, coastal infrastructure, human health, and other resources are different for different regions. As a result of this variation, climate change models need to become more detailed at the regional level. Climate change will not affect the whole of Europe and the world in the same way.
In order to move forward with research and address the upcoming environmental challenges, policy-makers need a certain degree of certainty. They need to be sure that they are basing their actions on accurate climate models, and that their impact assessment models on environmental change are as accurate as possible. From a climate modelling point of view, it is impossible to give exact numbers, but some workshop participants suggested defining “corridors” of possible future developments. These could help to obtain a certain degree of certainty, helping to establish where the hotspots and tipping points are.
Faced with a certain degree of uncertainty, water resources management will have to cope with sudden changes. Climate change challenges the existing systems. Water managers will have to develop systems that can react based on uncertain assumptions in the absence of robust and effective models.
Scientists and policy-makers cannot cope with climate change on global change. There is a need to define clear and precise models for particular regions of interest. Seasonality needs to be taken into account too; it is important not just to measure annual changes. By breaking down the issues, climate change becomes more manageable, and improvements more real.
Roland Schenkel (Director-General DG JRC) and José Manuel Silva Rodriguez (Director-General DG Research) shared their thoughts with conference delegates, and stressed the importance of co-operation among the European Commission’s DGs.