Europe is not prepared for rapidly growing climate risks

Europe is the fastest warming continent in the world, and climate risks are threatening its energy and food security, ecosystems, infrastructure, water resources, financial stability, and people’s health. According to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) assessment, published today, many of these risks have already reached critical levels and could become catastrophic without urgent and decisive action. MPI-BGC scientist Ana Bastos contributed as the lead author of the chapter on forest disturbances and carbon sinks.

This press release is based on the original release graciously provided by the European Environment Agency.

Extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and flooding, as experienced in recent years, will worsen in Europe even under optimistic global warming scenarios and affect living conditions throughout the continent. The EEA has published the first ever European Climate Risk Assessment (EUCRA) to help identify policy priorities for climate change adaptation and for climate-sensitive sectors.

According to the assessment, Europe’s policies and adaptation actions are not keeping pace with the rapidly growing risks. In many cases, incremental adaptation will not be sufficient and, as many measures to improve climate resilience require a long time, urgent action may be needed even on risks that are not yet critical.

Some regions in Europe are hotspots for multiple climate risks. Southern Europe is particularly at risk from wildfires and impacts of heat and water scarcity on agricultural production, outdoor work, and human health. Flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion threaten Europe’s low-lying coastal regions, including many densely populated cities.

„Our new analysis shows that Europe faces urgent climate risks that are growing faster than our societal preparedness. To ensure the resilience of our societies, European and national policymakers must act now to reduce climate risks both by rapid emission cuts and by strong adaptation policies and actions,“ so Leena Ylä-Mononen, the EEA Executive Director.

Many climate risks in Europe require urgent action now

The assessment identifies 36 major climate risks for Europe within five broad clusters: ecosystems, food, health, infrastructure, and economy and finance. More than half of the major climate risks identified in the report demand more action now and eight of them are particularly urgent, mainly to conserve ecosystems, protect people against heat, protect people and infrastructure from floods and wildfires, and to secure the viability of European solidarity mechanisms, such as the EU Solidarity Fund.

Ecosystems: Almost all risks in the ecosystem cluster require urgent or more action, with risks to marine and coastal ecosystems assessed as particularly severe. The EEA report reminds that ecosystems provide multiple services to people, and therefore these risks have a high potential to cascade to other areas, including food, health, infrastructure, and economy. 

Food: Risks from heat and drought to crop production are already at a critical level in southern Europe, but countries in central Europe are also at risk. Especially, prolonged droughts that affect large areas pose a significant threat on crop production, food security and drinking water supplies. As one solution, even a partial shift from animal-based proteins to sustainably grown plant-based proteins, would reduce water consumption in agriculture and dependency on imported feed. 

Health: Heat is the gravest and most urgent climate risk driver for human health. At greatest risk are specific population groups, such as outdoor workers exposed to extreme heat, the elderly and people living in poorly built dwellings, in areas with a strong urban heat island effect or with inadequate access to cooling. Many levers to reduce climate risks for health lie outside traditional health policies, such as urban planning, building standards and labour laws. 

Infrastructure: More frequent and extreme weather events increase the risks to Europe’s built environment and critical services, including energy, water and transport. While coastal flood risks have been managed relatively well in Europe, rising sea levels and changes in storm patterns can cause devastating impacts on people, infrastructure and economic activities. In southern Europe, heat and droughts cause substantial risks to energy production, transmission and demand. Residential buildings also need to be adapted to increasing heat.

Economy and finance: Europe’s economy and financial system are facing many climate risks. For example, climate extremes can increase insurance premiums, threaten assets and mortgages, and increase government expenditure and loan costs. The viability of the EU Solidarity Fund is already critically threatened due to costly floods and wildfires in recent years. Worsening climate impacts can also widen private insurance gaps and make low-income households more vulnerable.

Closer cooperation is key

The EU and its Member States have made considerable progress in understanding the climate risks they face and in preparing for them. National climate risk assessments are increasingly used to inform adaptation policy development. However, societal preparedness is insufficient as policy implementation is lagging behind the rapid increase in risk levels. 

Most major climate risks identified in the report are considered ‘co-owned’ by the EU, its Member States or other government levels. To address and reduce climate risks in Europe, the EEA assessment stresses that the EU and its Member States need to work together and also involve regional and local levels, when urgent and coordinated action is required.  

There are still many knowledge gaps with major climate risks identified in the EEA report. The EU can play a key role in improving the understanding of climate risks and their risk ownership, and how to address them through legislation, proper governance structures, monitoring, funding and technical support, the report states. Such new knowledge would also be instrumental input for a follow-up European Climate Risk Assessment.

About the EUCRA report

The EEA’s EUCRA report builds on and complements the existing knowledge base on climate impacts and risks for Europe, including recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC), as well as outcomes of EU-funded research and development projects and national climate risk assessments. The knowledge in this first-of-its-kind assessment is synthesised with the aim to support strategic policymaking.

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