The nature of climate change impacts will vary for different climate and socioeconomic settings. All countries in the EU are vulnerable, but some regions are more at risk than others.
The Arctic faces major changes including a higher than average temperature increase, a decrease in summer sea ice cover and thawing of permafrost. The reduction of ice cover is accelerating and projected to continue to impact local natural and human systems. It also opens up business opportunities that could put an additional burden on the environment such as extensive oil and gas exploration and the opening of new shipping routes. Thawing of permafrost has the potential to seriously affect human systems, for example by creating infrastructure problems. The fragile Arctic ecosystems have suffered significantly from above average temperature increases and these impacts are expected to continue.
Projections suggest less snow and lake and river ice cover, increased winter and spring river flows in some parts and decreases in other parts (e.g. Finland), and greater damage by winter storms. Climate change could offer opportunities in northern Europe, at least in the short and medium terms. These include increased crop variety and yields, enhanced forest growth, higher potential for electricity from hydropower, lower energy consumption for heating and possibly more summer tourism. However, more frequent and intense extreme weather events in the medium to long term might adversely impact the region, for example by making crop yields more variable.
Coastal flooding has impacted low-lying coastal areas in north-western Europe in the past and the risks are expected to increase due to sea level rise and an increased risk of storm surges. North Sea countries are particularly vulnerable, especially Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Higher winter precipitation is projected to increase the intensity and frequency of winter and spring river flooding, although to date no increased trends in flooding have been observed.
Temperature extremes are projected to be a key impact in central and eastern Europe. Together with reduced summer precipitation this can increase the risk of droughts, and is projected to increase energy demand in summer. The intensity and frequency of river floods in winter and spring (in various regions) is projected to increase due to greater winter precipitation. Climate change is also projected to lead to higher crop-yield variability and increased occurrence of forest fires.
The Mediterranean region has been subject to major impacts over recent decades as a result of decreased precipitation and increased temperature, and these are expected to worsen as the climate continues to change. The main impacts are decreases in water availability and crop yields, increasing risks of droughts and biodiversity loss, forest fires and heat waves. Increasing irrigation efficiency in agriculture can reduce water withdrawals to some degree but will not be sufficient to compensate for climate-induced increases in water stress. In addition the hydropower sector will be increasingly affected by lower water availability and increasing energy demand, while the tourism industry will face less favourable conditions in summer. Environmental flows, which are important for the healthy maintenance of aquatic ecosystems, are threatened by climate change impacts and socio-economic developments.
In previous years, increasing urban land take and urban population growth have in many places increased the exposure of European cities to different climate impacts such as heat waves, flooding and droughts. The impacts of extreme events such as the flooding of the river Elbe (2002) or the urban drainage flood in Copenhagen (2011) demonstrate the high vulnerability of cities to extreme weather events. In the future, on-going urban land take, growth and concentration of population in cities, as well as an aging population, will contribute to increase further the vulnerability of cities to climate change. Urban design, urban management and enhancing green infrastructure may partly address these effects.
The increase in temperature is particularly significant in many mountain regions, where loss of glacier mass, reduced snow cover, thawing of permafrost and changing precipitation patterns, including less precipitation falling as snow, have been observed and are expected to increase further. This could lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of floods in some mountain areas (e.g. in parts of Scandinavia) that can impact people and the built environment. Additional projected impacts include reduced winter tourism, lower energy potential from hydropower in southern Europe, a shift in vegetation zones and extensive biodiversity loss. Plant and animal species living close to mountain tops face the risk of becoming extinct due to the inability to migrate to higher regions.
The retreat of the vast majority of glaciers also affects water availability in downstream areas.