What will climate change mean for Europe?

Thursday, 24 September, 2015
Keeping global warming below 2 °C: this objective was set to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. That said, even if the rise in average temperatures worldwide could still be contained within this limit, it will have major consequences. How will two additional degrees affect Europe? An EU-funded project has looked into the future.

“Even under global warming of only two degrees, society will have to find ways to adapt,” says Daniela Jacob of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research, in Germany. Jacob is the coordinator of the Impact2C project, a four-year scientific endeavour that focuses on the likely implications for Europe.

The partners involved in the project, which is due to end in September 2015, presented key findings at the climate conference in Paris from 7 to 10 July 2015. They have produced detailed information for all EU countries and for the continent as a whole. In general, Jacob notes, a two-degree rise on average worldwide would imply even higher increases across Europe, with some areas potentially facing changes of up to four degrees.

Having completed their analysis of the likely effects, the project partners have provided input for the development of recommendations on possible adaptation strategies. “A 2 °C world in Europe is not benign,” they note, adding that further work is needed to explore the implications for regions that will be particularly impacted and the potential for advance adaptation measures. They are also planning to project the expected implications of a potential three-degree increase for comparison.

A matter of degrees

Land masses heat up more readily than large bodies of water, Jacob explains. The oceans would therefore not warm as much as a continent like Europe, lowering the global average. Two more degrees globally would thus mean even higher temperatures across most of the EU. In parts of southern Europe, say the Impact2C partners, average temperatures could soar by as much as 3 °C in summer, whereas winters in Scandinavia and the Baltic region could warm up by up to 4 °C.

Like the temperature increases themselves, the effects are expected to hit some areas harder than others. Higher temperatures will affect the water cycle, leading to longer and more severe dry spells in regions exposed to droughts. However, the rains, when they do come, will be a force to be reckoned with: heavier precipitation across Europe is expected to boost the frequency and severity of extreme events such as floods. 

To date, climate change has progressed at an average speed of 0.1 oC per decade. However, the findings of Impact2C indicate that these rates are likely to increase in the near future.

Acording to the project’s findings, 2 °C of global warming could imply an average rate of change of up to 0.3o C per decade for Europe as a whole. Areas experiencing above-average rises in mean temperature would, evidently, also be the ones facing the fastest rate of change. Scandinavia, for instance, could experience warming of around 0.4 oC per decade.

This aspect is significant, as the pace affects the outcomes — forests, for example, would react differently to a slow, steady rise than to a succession of steep hikes. A higher rate of change would also amplify the rise in sea levels, say the partners, although the swelling waters are already inevitable, to some extent.

Assessing the cost of (in)action

While global warming is now widely accepted as inexorable, working out when the two-degree threshold will be reached is difficult. Somewhere around 2050, says Jacob. Much depends on the implementation of appropriate and effective mitigation strategies, she notes, adding that predicting the actual moment was not part of the project’s remit.

So what would a global two-degree rise mean for Europe? Impact2C attempted to answer this question coherently across a number of sectors, analysing issues as varied as agriculture, health and infrastructure. Exactly how pronounced or severe the changes will be depends on the circumstances — the success or failure of international efforts to curb emissions, for example. The partners have therefore considered a number of possible scenarios.

As a further contribution to the climate debate, Impact2C set itself the task of evaluating the financial implications. “Having the entire chain from the global climate change to the cost analysis embedded in a single project is an innovative aspect,” says Jacob. “Our work also covers the adaptation options as well as the cost of adaptation or non-adaptation.”

Based on their findings, the partners have generated input to support the development of recommendations on possible adaptation strategies. This information will be submitted to policy- and decision-makers around Europe, along with details for individual EU countries and an estimate of the costs. Impact2C also intends to publish a web-based atlas of Europe under two degrees of global warming.

Two more degrees compared to pre-industrial levels may not sound like much, but the implications would be major — and the below 2 °C objective may no longer even be realistic, says Jacob. However, she is confident that effective action taken urgently could still contain the phenomenon at 2.5 °C or so.

This would be good news. Already, communities around the world are struggling with the effects of rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and extreme weather events.

“In many other parts of the world, the impact will be much more dramatic,” says Jacob, “but the adaptation capacity in these regions is often more limited than in Europe, which is relatively rich and well-organised.” As is so often the case, the poor are among the first to face the fall-out, and the least equipped to do so.

Quantifying projected impacts under 2 °C warming
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