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Europe must act now to adapt to climate change, says new report

A new report warns that Europe must take urgent action to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The report, 'Impacts of Europe's changing climate', is published jointly by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Wo...

A new report warns that Europe must take urgent action to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The report, 'Impacts of Europe's changing climate', is published jointly by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It recommends wide-ranging adaptation and preventive measures in the areas of economy, health and the environment. The report highlights vulnerabilities in all areas of Europe and appeals to policymakers to develop concrete adaptation plans. 'With increasing impacts of climate change, adaptation costs will increase and response options may decrease,' the report observes. Absence of full scientific certainty, it cautions, 'should not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment'. The report provides projections of changes to the physical environment in different areas of Europe. It shows how the severity of natural disasters, such as flooding and heat waves, is expected to increase steadily, with the most noticeable changes occurring in the second half of this century. Because of temperature increases, ground-level ozone is not decreasing as rapidly as expected; policies that aim to reduce air pollution, while successful, must be adapted to the changing climate. With increasing temperatures and more frequent heat waves, the agricultural sector's need for water in some regions is increasing, which will lead to competition with other sectors. Additionally, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from soil are expected to increase with rising temperatures and extreme precipitation. Forest health and diversity is already affected across Europe: the changing climate benefits certain species and threatens others, and the combination of drought and warm winters favours pest populations. More fires and longer fire seasons are expected in the future. Climate change is expected to reduce heating demands in northern Europe and increase air-conditioning demands in southern Europe. More extreme water flow is expected to impact dam safety, and the more severe summer droughts that are anticipated will limit the availability of adequate and suitable cooling water for thermal power plants. In terms of adapting to a changing physical environment, the report cautions against 'mal-adaptations' such as artificial snow-making, transfer of water, air conditioning or desalination. The report emphasises the need to clearly define and avoid such mal-adaptations, as they can lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions that will in turn offset any mitigation efforts. Changes in the physical environment due to climate change are well documented, but data on specific adaptation measures that benefit both society and the physical world are not as bountiful. The report observes that more data on adaptation costs is essential, and stresses the importance of 'involving European society, business and the public sector in the preparation of coordinated and comprehensive adaptation strategies'. Adaptation strategies include health/heat action plans, vaccination, health system planning, flood risk planning, drought and water-scarcity risk management, coastal and flood defences, economic diversification, reinforcing the built environment (e.g. roads, bridges, electric wires), land-use management and the greening of cities. Climate change is expected to significantly impact public health; coastal flooding and associated infrastructure damage alone have substantial effects. The report observes that: 'most adaptation measures appear to be low cost (e.g. provision of information), but large-scale vaccination or other prevention programmes against vector-borne disease are potentially very costly.' The economies of south-eastern Europe and the Mediterranean are expected to be most adversely affected by climate change, particularly in terms of 'energy demand, agricultural productivity, water availability, health effects, summer tourism and ecosystems', according to the report. It warns that the tourism industry faces significant adaptation costs, and that 'adaptation responses such as economic diversification will be critical to limit economic losses'. The report explains that the financial sector is in a position to enhance Europe's resilience in the face of climate change in a number of ways. Insurance companies can increase risk awareness and provide incentives for risk reduction through their underwriting policies, while the financial sector as a whole greatly influences business decisions through their investment policies and asset management. The report acknowledges the adaptive value of public-private insurance schemes, for example those introduced in Belgium and proposed in the Netherlands, that address the need to insure vulnerable populations in the face of increased losses in future due to climate change. However, it notes that 'climate predictions across Europe show that there is no one-size-fits-all solution'. The gaps in climate change data require 'a sustained integrated monitoring and observation system for Europe', according to the report, and a European 'clearinghouse' on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation should be made publicly available. 'Such a system can also effectively provide important European information to international organisations such as UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change],' it adds. 'It is now clear that adaptation to climate change will be ever more needed,' says Professor Leen Hordijk, Director of the JRC's Institute for Environment and Sustainability. 'However, we also need a better understanding of the impacts of adaptation measures on the environment, the economy and society at large.' In its press release the JRC said that, 'Collaboration between major institutions is required for tackling the climate change problem. It can be argued that the problem is indeed more institutional and less scientific, technological or political.'

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