For several years, the EU's climate policy has been focused on measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as convincing international partners to sign the Kyoto Protocol (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU climate change policies).
Increasingly, however, extreme weather phenomena such as heat waves, floods and forest fires have drawn attention to the need to define strategies and measures to adapt to the effects of global warming that are already occurring.
Therefore, on 29 June 2007, the Commission adopted a Green Paper "Adapting to climate change in Europe – options for EU action" proposing several options for action to deal with the effects of climate change. It has also organised several stakeholder debates to get input from industry, NGOs, think tanks, scientists and civil society groups.
The green paper looks at the impacts of climate change effects in several European regions and attempts to define possible adaptation actions which need a European dimension, while recognising that cooperation with member states and regions will be essential.
In its introduction to the green paper, the Commission gives the following definition of climate change adaptation: "Adaptation actions are taken to cope with a changing climate, e.g. increased rainfall, higher temperatures, scarcer water resources or more frequent storms, [either] at present or anticipating such changes in future. Adaptation aims at reducing the risk and damage from current and future harmful impacts cost-effectively or exploiting potential benefits [...] Adaptation can encompass national or regional strategies as well as practical steps taken at community level or by individuals. Adaptation measures can be anticipatory or reactive. Adaptation applies to natural as well as to human systems. Ensuring the sustainability of investments over their entire lifetime taking explicit account of a changing climate is often referred to as 'climate proofing'."
The role of member states, regions and local authorities
The green paper recognises that there is a need for "multilevel governance" as the "severity of the impacts will vary from region to region, depending on physical vulnerability, the degree of socio-economic development, natural and human adaptive capacity, health services and disaster surveillance mechanisms".
Four priority options
The Commission defines four priority options for a flexible, four-pronged approach:
Early action to develop adaptation strategies in areas where current knowledge is sufficient;
integrating global adaptation needs into the EU's external relations policy and building a new alliance with partners around the world;
filling knowledge gaps on adaptation through EU-level research and exchange of information; and;
setting up a European advisory group on adaptation to climate change to analyse coordinated strategies and actions.
Costs of adaptation
Costs are expected to vary from inexpensive measures, such as awareness-raising and using drought-resistant crops, to expensive measures, such as building new dykes and power stations "because of failing hydropower stations".
Due to the lack of resources and uncertainty in the predictions of how climate change will play out, the Commission assumes that "market forces alone are unlikely to lead to efficient adaptation".
A European civil protection force?
After the forest fires in southern Europe in the summer of 2007, several politicians launched the idea of a permanent EU-wide civil protection force.
At the presentation of the green paper in June, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas underlined that adaptation is "no substitute for mitigation", referring to the 20% reduction target by 2020 set by EU leaders in March 2007.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) welcomed the Green Paper's focus on the social aspect of climate change. "Even on the optimistic assumption of global warming being limited to 2°C", according to the organisation's secretary, "large numbers of jobs will come under threat in Europe, particularly in the rural areas of the south or in mountainous regions. The impact will be all the stronger given that these regions offer few alternative sources of employment."
The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) also generally welcomed the Green Paper but was still missing "a more integrated and coherent approach" which paid more attention to the local and regional authorities. Local and regional governments should not be left alone with the "burden of adaptation", CMR stressed.
In a briefing note published in July 2007, climate experts from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research identified several thresholds and barriers to adaptation policies.