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Adaptation to climate change


Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later.

Examples of adaptation measures include: using scarce water resources more efficiently; adapting building codes to future climate conditions and extreme weather events; building flood defences and raising the levels of dykes; developing drought-tolerant crops; choosing tree species and forestry practices less vulnerable to storms and fires; and setting aside land corridors to help species migrate.

Why should the EU intervene?

Thames Barrier © iStockphoto

Adaptation strategies are needed at all levels of administration: at the local, regional, national, EU and also the international level. Due to the varying severity and nature of climate impacts between regions in Europe, most adaptation initiatives will be taken at the regional or local levels. The ability to cope and adapt also differs across populations, economic sectors and regions within Europe.

The Commission adopted an EU adaptation strategy in April 2013 which has been welcomed by the Member States. Complementing the activities of Member States, the strategy supports action by promoting greater coordination and information-sharing between Member States, and by ensuring that adaptation considerations are addressed in all relevant EU policies.

The EU’s role can be particularly appropriate when climate change impacts transcend borders of individual states - such as with river basins - and when impacts vary considerably across regions. The role of the EU can be especially useful to enhance solidarity among Member States and ensure that disadvantaged regions and those most affected by climate change are capable of taking the necessary measures to adapt.


Adaptation Strategy

White Paper


Climate change evidence

What evidence is there that climate change is happening?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations, set up s) to review and assess the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC on a voluntary basis.

In 2007, the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report stated that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as evidenced from observations at continental, regional and ocean basin scales worldwide.  The observed 100-year warming trend (1906-2005) is 0,74°C, and the warmest years on record are all concentrated in the last decade. Other observed climate changes  include changes in the Arctic, widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and aspects of extreme weather including droughts, heavy precipitation, heatwaves and the intensity of tropical cyclonesThe temperature increase is widespread over the globe and is greater at higher northern latitudes. Land regions have warmed faster than the oceans.

The IPCC also concluded in 2007 that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. Other discernible human influences on climate comprehend ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns.

All existing climate models are consistent in showing a continued warming trend along the 21st century, though they differ in intensity depending on the amount of emissions expected and on the model used to project warming. In 2007, the likely range of global average warming was estimated to be between 1.1 and 6.4°C, relative to 1980-1999. In March 2009 the International Scientific Congress Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions concluded that the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised.

How will climate change impact on Europe?

In January 2013 the European Environment Agency (EEA) published its latest report on 'Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2012'. The presents evidence on climate trends and impacts in Europe, and future projections. Among the report's main faindings are:

Climate change (increases in temperature, changes in precipitation and decreases in ice and snow) is occurring globally and in Europe; some of these observed changes have established records in recent years. Observed climate change has already led to a wide range of impacts on environmental systems and society, and include:

Coasts and European seas: overall rise in sea levels; increase in ocean acidification, sea surface temperature and ocean heat content; earlier seasonal appearance of various marine species; northward expansion of some fish and plankton species.

Freshwater systems: changes in river flows, with decreases in southern and eastern and increases in other regions; increases in the reported number of floods, in the frequency and intensity of droughts (in particular in southern Europe), and in water temperature in rivers and lakes.

  • Biodiversity and ecosystems: changes in the occurrence dates of spring and autumn seasonal events in plants and animals; lengthening of breeding seasons; northwards and uphill movement of many plant and animal species; establishment of warm-adapted alien plant species.
  • Agriculture:northward expansion of areas suitable for several crops; earlier flowering and harvest dates in cereals; reduced yield of some crops due to heat waves and but increased yields of other crops; increased water demand for irrigation.
  • Forests and forestry: reduction in forest growth in some central and western areas of Europe; increase in the number of forest fires in the Mediterranean region.
  • Energy: reduced demand for heating but increased demand for cooling.
  • Human health: tens of thousands of premature deaths due to summer heat‑wave; increased number of people affected by river and coastal flooding; northward and upward movement of tick species and related increased risk.

Observed impacts of climate change are projected to continue due to further climate change. The level of future impacts will depend on the magnitude of climate change and on socio‑economic and environmental factors. Vulnerability to climate change varies widely across regions and sectors in Europe. Particularly vulnerable regions include: Southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin (due to heat and droughts), the Alps (due to rapid melting of snow and ice), coastal zones, deltas and floodplains (due to sea level rise, intense rainfall, floods and storms) and Europe's far north, the Arctic and Outermost regions (due to increased global warming).

Economic sectors that rely strongly on certain temperatures and precipitation – from agriculture to forestry, fisheries, energy to tourism – are also highly vulnerable. Water availability and quality are also expected to be affected across Europe.

While society at large is expected to be affected, the most vulnerable (elderly, disabled and low-income households) are likely to be more susceptible to climate impacts.

Why are some regions and sectors more vulnerable to climate change than others?

Climate change will affect all natural and man-made systems to some extent. However, the impacts on individual sectors or regions will vary depending on the sensitivity of the system and its adaptive capacity. Sensitivity of a system is the extent to which changes in climate will affect the system in its current form, while the adaptive capacity of the system is its capacity to change in a way that makes it better equipped to deal with external influences. Both the sensitivity and adaptive capacity of a system will contribute to how vulnerable the system is to changes in climate. Vulnerability is the degree of susceptibility to, or inability to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes

The degree to which a region is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes will also depend on its geographical location, socio-economic developments (population growth, energy demand, industrial, agricultural productivity and water availability) and adaptive capacity.

How will climate change affect migration?

Environmentally-related migration and displacement are not a new phenomenon. However, the effects of climate change on population displacement are a topic of growing concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 4th assessment report notes migration and displacement as being likely key impacts of climate change due to changing patterns of extreme weather and climate events.

While it remains unclear in what ways decisions to migrate are affected by climate and environmental disruptions, numerous examples could be put forward to substantiate the link between climate change, environment and migration, such as droughts in the Sahel region or sea-level rise in the case of small islands. The least developed countries and the poorest people in any society are usually most vulnerable and have the greatest difficulty in coping. The Cancun agreements reached at the COP 16 represent a significant step inviting all Parties to undertake "measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation". The EU Adaptation Strategy addresses climate-induced migration.

Where can further information be obtained on the science behind Climate?

The definitive source of information about climate science is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC's role is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. The fourth and latest IPCC Assessment Report, AR4, was published in 2007. The next Assessment report is expected for 2014.

Concept of Adaptation

What is adaptation?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) defines adaptation as "any adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities".

Effective measures directed at enhancing our capacity to adapt and at minimising, adjusting to and taking advantage of the consequences of climatic change (delivering adaptation actions) are required.

Adaptation measures can be taken at national, regional and local levels and include using scarce water more efficiently, adapting building codes to future climate conditions and extreme weather events, building flood defences and raising the levels of dykes, developing drought-tolerant crops, choosing tree species and forestry practices less vulnerable to storms and fires, and setting aside land corridors to help species migrate.

What is the difference between adaptation and mitigation?

Adaptation, along with mitigation, is an essential part of addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with climate change. Mitigation refers to our efforts to limit the man-made causes of climate change. Adaptation involves taking action so that we can be more resilient to our current climate, less susceptible to the impacts of future climate change and in a position to take advantage of opportunities.

Since the atmosphere is shared, mitigation action will typically have long-term, global benefits. Adaptation will most often have local, sector-specific benefits. There are often synergies and overlaps between mitigation and adaptation. For instance, planting trees in urban areas or restoring a peatland has both mitigation and adaptation benefits.

Irrespective of the success of mitigation efforts, there will still be some degree of unavoidable climate change. This stems from our historic greenhouse gas emissions and the persistence of these gases in the atmosphere, as well as the slow warming of the oceans.

Where to find more information on adaptation in Europe? What is Climate-ADAPT?

The Climate-ADAPT Adaptation Knowledge Platform was launched in March 2012, fulfilling the 2009 White Paper's objective to develop an EU adaptation clearinghouse mechanism.

It provides several useful resources to support adaptation policy and decision making, such as a toolset for adaptation planning; a projects and case studies' database that can be selectively consulted (e.g. for similar risks or sectors); information on adaptation action at all levels, from the EU through regional and national to the local level; and other useful information. With more than 1.000 daily visits,

Climate-ADAPT has been unanimously acknowledged by Member States and adaptation stakeholders, and most countries have involved themselves in its development by providing information on national action.

The Website has already become a reference for adaptation knowledge platforms, both within the EU and abroad; several neighbouring regions and countries have shown interest in mirroring the structure or even associating themselves with the platform. 

Climate-ADAPT is dynamically managed, with a permanent updating of contents by the EEA, and some contracts going on to develop new tools or improve those existing, and facilitate its use by improving accessibility and dissemination.

What is the role of ecosystems in building resilience to climate change?

Ecosystems play a key role in regulating climate. Changes in ecosystem composition, and especially in ecosystem structure, in many cases have important implications for the interactions between the biosphere and the climate system, as well as for ecosystem services on which society depends including the provision of fresh water, food and medicine.

Terrestrial and marine ecosystems currently absorb roughly half of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This is an important 'free' ecosystem service. However, growing evidence suggests that the capacity of the Earth's carbon sinks is weakening due to the continuous degradation of ecosystems. If the loss of biodiversity continues - or accelerates - the achievement of the climate change goals could be compromised. Urgent action now to halt the further loss and degradation of biodiversity will help to build resilience and maintain the provision of ecosystem services thus providing future options for reducing the impact of climate change.

Ecosystem based adaptation is often considered a no-regret option as it provides multiple services and promotes synergies. Europe has built up a vast network of over 26,000 protected areas covering all the Member States representing more than 20% of total EU territory. These sites, known as the Natura 2000 network is the largest network of protected areas in the world.

The ecological coherence of the Natura 2000 network, as well as habitat quality, is essential for the long-term survival of many species and habitats. The impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems present new challenges for nature conservation. Adaptation measures to maintain diversity and increase connectivity will be necessary to ensure the achievement of nature conservation objectives under changing climatic conditions. At the same time, nature conservation contributes to increase resilience and maintain healthy ecosystems essential for any adaptation and mitigation strategy.

Adaptation Strategy

What is an Adaptation Strategy?

An Adaptation Strategy aims to increase society’s resilience to climate change. It is a framework for managing future climate risk, prioritising and coordinating action. It offers the potential of reducing future economic, environmental and social costs.

Over the past decade or more the predominant focus has been on strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However as the IPCC findings emerged and it became clearer that some level of climate change was inevitable irrespective of emission reduction strategies, the need to prepare an adaptation strategy to complement mitigation efforts became more apparent.

For an Adaptation Strategy to be effective, it must result in climate risk being considered as a normal part of decision-making. To reach this point, more new knowledge is required on climate impacts, particularly on regional impacts as well as on the economic costs of action/inaction.

Any climate change adaptation strategy must be flexible and continue changing as new impacts are seen. A number of EU Member States have already prepared national adaptation strategies.

Why do we need an EU Adaptation Strategy?

While a “one-size-fits-all” approach to adaptation is clearly not appropriate, there is a key role for – and significant benefits to be gained from – integrated, coordinated EU adaptation action to complement national, regional and local efforts.

The EU can coordinate efforts to identify knowledge gaps and support specific research programmes on adaptation through focused project calls.

The EU can promote adaptation action covering the whole EU territory, since lack of preparedness or inaction in one Member State may have negative consequences for neighbouring countries. Many of the adaptation measures required have cross-border dimensions (e.g. for river basins and bio-geographic regions). There is a role for the EU in promoting and coordinating such cross-border adaptation action.

At the same time, the EU has a responsibility to integrate adaptation into its own policies and financial programmes, given its competence in areas such as water, agriculture, biodiversity, health etc. and the implications this has for Member States policies. This includes ensuring that adaptation action is consistent with mitigation and vice versa.

The Impact Assessment accompanying the Communication on an EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change provides further inputs on the value added of EU intervention on adaptation.

What was before the EU Adaptation Strategy?

The White Paper presented by the European Commission proposed an EU framework on adaptation to strengthen the EU's resilience to cope with the impacts of a changing climate.

The White Paper established a framework for action focusing on four key pillars and included 33 actions:

  • Building a stronger knowledge base
  • Taking climate change impacts into consideration in key EU policies
  • Financing
  • Supporting wider international efforts on adaptation

It built on the wide-ranging consultation launched in 2007 by the Green Paper on Adapting to Climate Change in Europe.

How does the EU treat adaptation in the Mediterranean?

The EU Neighbourhood Policy seeks cooperation on climate matters in the Mediterranean region, assisting countries in developing climate change policies. Existing projects include CLIM-RUN, on climate local information; SWIM-Support, dealing with no-regrets water sector adaptation. In 2013, a European Commission project supports the transition of ENP countries to climate resilience, through cooperation, information sharing and capacity. A Joint EEAS-Commission Communication on EU-Maghreb relations also addresses climate change.

International action

What is necessary to ensure effective adaptation to climate change by all countries and to support the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries?

The Cancun Adaptation Framework adopted in 2010 under UNFCCC provides a framework for action on adaptation. Adaptation is a challenge for all countries and especially those that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These include the least developed countries, small island developing states and African countries that are prone to extreme weather events such as drought, storms, floods and desertification.

The framework proposed that all countries, should be required to draft comprehensive national adaptation strategies to ensure that costly and recurring climate impacts can be prevented as far as possible.

In many cases, successful adaptation by developing countries can be achieved only if climate change impacts are taken into account in development cooperation projects. This needs to be done more systematically to prevent climate change impacts from jeopardising development assistance efforts.

Better tools and know-how to design and implement adaptation strategies need to be developed. National institutions and international cooperation should be strengthened to disseminate knowledge and technologies for adaptation and climate resilient development.

A Technology Mechanism was established at COP 16 in Cancun which is expected to facilitate the implementation of enhanced action on technology development and transfer in order to support action on mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The Technology Mechanism consists of the following two components:  the Technology Executive Committee and the Climate Technology Centre and Network.

Financial and technological support should be provided to the most vulnerable developing countries. Kyoto’s Adaptation Fund can play an important role but will be insufficient to support adaptation in all developing countries, so innovative additional sources of financing will be needed. The UNFCCC Secretariat has estimated that total adaptation costs in developing countries could range from €23 to €54 billion per year in 2030.

As with mitigation, financing options need to be tailored to the actual investment needed. A large number of early measures will even generate a net benefit to the economy, for instance measures to improve water use efficiency in areas that will suffer from water shortages.

A multilateral insurance pool to cover disaster losses should be explored to complement existing funding mechanisms in case of climate-related natural disasters.

How can the necessary resources be made available?

Developed countries will contribute to assistance for developing countries through public funding as well as the use of carbon crediting mechanisms. The financial contribution of each developed country should be comparable and based on the polluter pays principle – in other words, its allowed level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - and ability to pay.

Funding for adaptation is provided through the financial mechanism of the UNFCCC. Current funding opportunities include:

  • the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Trust Fund, including support for vulnerability and adaptation assessments as part of national communications;
  • the GEF managed Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) under the Convention;
  • the GEF managed Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) under the Convention;
  • the Adaptation Fund (AF) under the Kyoto Protocol and managed by the Adaptation Fund Board (AFB).
  • the Green Climate Fund (GCF) agreed on in Cancun in 2010 and made operational in Durban in 2011, which includes a significant new share of multilateral funding for adaptation.

Two principal options for creating an innovative international source of additional funding have been identified.

Under the first option, developed countries would commit to providing a certain amount of funding through bilateral and multilateral channels, calculated for each country on the basis of its allowed emissions and its income levels. The higher the country’s income levels and the more it emits, the more it would need to contribute. This would provide certainty about the total amount of funding available.

The second option would be to set apart a certain percentage of emission rights that each developed country would receive to cover their emissions, and auction these rights to governments at international level. The percentage could increase progressively in line with the country’s per capita income. This option would give developed countries that cannot cover all their emissions the option to buy emission rights from these international auctions. Unlike the first option, however, it would not necessarily generate predictable levels of funding since governments could choose to buy Clean Development Mechanism credits instead.

In either case, the timely provision and effective use of the resources to be made available will need to be verified under a new agreement to ensure its effectiveness. It should be explored how developing countries, except the least developed and small island developing states, could contribute over time in line with their financial capability.

For the EU, significant additional public revenue will be generated through the auctioning of emission allowances under the emissions trading system from 2013. Member States could use some of this revenue to honour their international funding commitments under the Copenhagen agreement.

How could resources be generated to support early action by developing countries?

The EU should explore the possibility of developing a ‘front-loading’ mechanism to deliver substantial funding in the short term for the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries.

Based on the issuance of bonds, this proposed Global Climate Financing Mechanism (GCFM) would allow early spending on priority climate-related actions. These funds would in particular facilitate an immediate reaction to urgent adaptation needs with a high return such as disaster risk reduction. A share of the funds raised could also support emission mitigation activities, in particular those that generate synergies between mitigation and adaptation, such as reducing emissions from deforestation.

The GCFM aims at raising around €1 billion per year for the period 2010-2014. After the initial phase of increased funding, the mechanism would start to pay back the funds raised.