Europe readies for effects of climate change

BRUSSELS -- Adapting to the effects of climate change has become a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Union has just released a white paper on the topic, one day after U.S. House Democrats unveiled a draft bill focusing on the very same issue.

Presented yesterday by the European Commission after two years in the making, the white paper aims at bolstering the 27 E.U. member states' overall capacity to cope with the effects of climate change by complementing and coordinating efforts made by individual E.U. members.

The effects of climate change in Europe are now well documented: Last year, the European Environment Agency, the European Commission and the World Health Organization released a joint report presenting evidence on the impacts of climate change throughout Europe.

The types of impact the researchers observed include more frequent hot- and cold-weather spikes, heightened intensity and variability in precipitation extremes, the swift melting of European glaciers and sea ice, significant changes in river systems and distribution across Northern and Southern Europe, and rising sea levels.

"Since 1998, Europe has weathered over 100 major floods, causing just as many deaths; these floods have displaced half a million people and cost some €25 billion worth in damage," said Stavros Dimas, E.U. commissioner for the environment, at a white-paper press conference yesterday.


"In 2003, over a hundred million people and a third of E.U. territory were affected by flood, while at the same time water scarcity was already a problem for at least 14 U.E. member states and a hundred million citizens," he added.

The white paper reveals that Europe's most generally vulnerable regions are Southern Europe, the Mediterranean Basin and the Arctic, whereas more specific problems assail mountain areas (in particular the Alps), islands, coastal and urban areas, and densely populated floodplains.

Impacts to be felt for at least 50 years

The paper's authors expect that climate change will spare no aspect of the European economy: Crop yields may decrease and crops may fail, coasts and marine ecosystems will be directly hit, both supply and demand in energy will be severely affected, and tourism will likely suffer from decreasing snow cover in Alpine areas and increasing temperatures in the Mediterranean.

Dimas predicts that with climate change, extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent and even more severe. "Europe will endure more regular flooding, more severe storms and storm damage, more frequent drought, more stress on infrastructure and on ecosystems," he said.

Echoing the white paper, Dimas explained that even if the world succeeds in bringing greenhouse gas emission levels down to zero, the impact of global warming is now inevitable due to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

Having concluded that Europe and the world will be facing the impact of climate change for at least the coming 50 years, the European Commission now argues that Europe must take measures to adapt without further delay.

"Some effects of climate change are now inevitable; urgent action is therefore needed to make our people, communities, infrastructures and ecosystems more resilient in the face of the unavoidable impact of climate change," said Dimas, insisting that "a strategic approach is necessary" even though most adaptation initiatives will have to be taken at local, national or regional levels due to varying regional severity and the varying impacts on climate in each area.

An ambitious framework without a price tag -- yet

He outlined a "framework for action" based on four pillars:

  • Building a stronger knowledge base by enhancing the availability of reliable data -- now varying considerably across regions -- on climate change impacts across Europe.
  • Integrating the topic of climate change impacts into E.U. policy while mainstreaming adaptation into sectoral policies Europewide in order to reduce the long-term vulnerability of sectors such as agriculture, forests, fisheries, energy, transportation, water and health.
  • Ensuring that available funds are used to reflect the reality that climate change is a priority for the European Union's current multi-annual financial framework (2007-13) and channeling the revenue generated from auctioning greenhouse gas emission allowances under the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme into efforts at adaptation.
  • Supporting wider international adaptation efforts by promoting the concept in partner countries, particularly those sharing Europe's borders.

"We need more studies to find the cost," says Dimas, adding that the commission is awaiting results from another study in late 2009 that should shed light on the cost of adaptation and help the European Union finalize its policy.

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