EU mulls climate-change adaptation strategy

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In an attempt to prepare the ground for a comprehensive EU climate-change adaptation strategy for after 2013, the European Commission has proposed to review key sectoral policies by 2012, to determine the potential impacts and costs of climate change for different economic sectors.

"We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but even with zero emissions, it is not possible to reverse the impact of climate change," said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, presenting the EU executive's White Paper on adapting to climate change on 1 April. 

The paper summarises the likely impacts of global warming and sets out an EU framework within which the bloc and its member states can prepare for the consequences expected. The aim is to "prepare the ground for a more comprehensive strategy for post-2013," Dimas said.  

The first phase of the strategy, which runs until 2012, will focus on increasing understanding and come up with possible measures to adapt to climate change, which would be embedded in key EU policies. According to the Commission, it is already clear that the impact of climate change will have varied regional implications, and most measures will need to be framed nationally and regionally. 

Developing knowledge base

The Commission notes that while a considerable amount of information and research already exists, it is not being shared across member states. The EU executive is thus proposing to establish of a 'Clearing House Mechanism' to serve as "an IT tool and database on climate-change impact and vulnerability, and best practices on adaptation". 

Methodologies, modelling, data sets and prediction tools enabled by ICT are set to assist policymakers, both with understanding and forecasting climate-change impacts, and with identifying vulnerabilities so as to develop appropriate adaptation measures. 

Integrating adaptation into all EU policies 

As climate change is likely to have profound effects on different economic sectors such as agriculture, energy, transport, ecosystems, tourism and health, adaptation "needs to be mainstreamed and integrated into all sectoral policies in order to reduce different sectors' vulnerability," Dimas said. 

"We need to make different systems resilient," he added, arguing that a strategic plan presented by the white paper was necessary to help individuals, businesses, the EU and its member states avoid "reactive and unplanned adaptation" in the future. 

The idea is to review all sectoral policies between 2009 and 2012 to determine the potential impacts of climate change in the sector, the costs of both action and inaction and how proposed measures impact on and interact with policies in other sectors.

Together with the white paper, the Commission adopted three discussion papers on water, coasts and marine ecologyagricultural and health issues, to define priorities for action and increase resilience. 

An accompanying working document on agriculture states that the agricultural industry will suffer in the long-term unless sector-wide structural and technological changes are implemented by public authorities to complement autonomous farm-level adaptation actions. 

It further notes that the climate change will affect water resources, soils, pests and diseases, thus leading to significant changes in the conditions for agriculture and livestock production, with "both negative and positive consequences in different EU regions". 

"With changing climate patterns, particular attention needs to be paid to the strengthening of human, animal  and plant health surveillance," said EU Health Commissioner Androula Vassiliou. As increased temperatures and extreme heat can spread infectious diseases, contaminate drinking water and lower air quality, thus worsening allergic disorders, "integrating extreme weather health action plans into the preparedness planning of health authorities is crucial," Vassiliou added.

Regarding water scarcity, the Commission will assess the need to further regulate the standards of water using equipment and water performance in agriculture, households and buildings, and evaluate options for boosting the water-storage capacity of ecosystems to increase drought resilience and reduce flood risks.

"Around 50% of the European population lives in coastal areas," said Maritime and Fisheries affairs Commissioner Joe Borg, underlining the need for adaptative measures to face rising sea-levels, coastal flooding, the impact on coastal tourism, ports, shipping and fisheries. 

Financing

"We don't have the necessary data yet," Dimas said, adding a lot of further studies to calculate the cost and understand sectoral vulnerabilities was needed. However, "the cost of adaptation will be much less than the benefits we will get from the adaptation," he assured.

The paper urges different sectors to develop strategies and cost estimates for adaptive actions "so that they may be taken into account in future financial decisions".   

Meanwhile, the paper identifies a range of public and private ways of financing adaptation. These include the recently-adopted European Economic Recovery Plan and optimising the use of insurance and other financial products to complement adaptation measures and function as risk-sharing instruments. The strategy also encourages member states to direct revenues from the EU's emissions trading scheme (EU ETS; see EurActiv LinksDossier) for adaptation purposes. 

Positions: 

Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel said: "European agriculture will feel the full force of climate change. I want to give farmers a clear understanding of the challenges they will face, and I want to launch discussions about specific steps to help our farmers to adapt. In particular, I want to see us take 'no-regret' measures which will bring economic and environmental dividends, no matter how the climate develops. These are the key elements of the paper on agriculture and climate change that has been adopted today in support to the white paper." 

However, the European farmers and agri-cooperatives association Copa-Cogeca is concerned that the white paper does not address the key issues of climate change. "Agriculture is the sector most affected by climate change. Local climate conditions are crucial for our work but beyond our control. Whilst the white paper correctly pinpoints some of the threats to EU food production – such as more crop failures, greater threats of plant and animal disease and lower water availability, it does not acknowledge the implications of climate change on food production," said secretary general of Copa-Cogeca, Pekka Pesonen.

"The intentions of this white paper are laudable, but a comprehensive response to climate change cannot just come within environmental policy. Simply improving the quality of life in rural areas will not necessarily increase the resilience of agriculture to climate change," Pesonen added.

Environmental NGO WWF lamented that the Commission's official response to climate-change adaptation is "woefully timid" and that "most of the proposed actions in the next three years are limited to preparation of guidelines, exploration of potential new policies and assessment of needs". 

The NGO is particularly concerned about a potential water crisis across Europe, whereby southern countries will suffer from reduced supplies, and other regions will face increased extreme weather events and floods. 

WWF considers the European Economic Recovery Plan announced last November to be "an appropriate way of taking immediate action," but deplores that the white paper "barely mentions these opportunities". 

Commenting on the working document on health and climate change, executive director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), Genon Jensen, said "it reflects the urgency associated with many of the actions needed today. However, we must rapidly go beyond surveillance to implementing actions to ensure that the EU provides hospitals, clinics, doctors and patients with the tools and examples of good practice they need to make the change happen."

Timeline: 
  • 2009-2011: Cost and benefits of EU adaptation options assessed. 
  • By 1 Sept. 2009: 'Impacts and Adaptation Steering Group' (IASG), composed of member-state representatives involved in the drawing-up of national and regional adaptation programmes, to be established.
  • Dec. 2009: UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen (COP-15) and projected completion of UN post-Kyoto deal.
  • By 2011: Clearing House Mechanism established and climate change methodologies, modelling, datasets and prediction tools developed.
  • By 2011: Vulnerability indicators developed for all economic sectors.
  • By 2012: Member states encouraged to develop national and regional adaptation strategies.
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