Europe needs adaptation strategies to limit climate change impacts
More frequent and more economically costly storms, floods, droughts and other extreme weather. Wetter conditions in northern Europe but drier weather in the south that could threaten agriculture in some areas. More frequent and more intense heatwaves, posing a lethal threat to the elderly and frail. Melting glaciers, with three-quarters of those in the Swiss Alps likely to disappear by 2050. Rising sea levels for centuries to come.
These are among the impacts of global climate change that are already being seen in Europe or are projected to happen over the coming decades as global temperatures rise, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA).
Strong evidence exists that most of the global warming over the past 50 years has been caused by human activities, in particular emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels.
The concentration of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, in the lower atmosphere is now at its highest for at least 420,000 years - possibly even 20 million years - and stands 34% above its level before the Industrial Revolution. The rise has been accelerating since 1950.
The summer floods of 2002 and last year’s summer heatwave are recent examples of how destructive extreme weather can be.
The serious flooding in 11 countries in August 2002 killed about 80 people, affected more than 600,000 and caused economic losses of at least 15 billion US$. In the summer 2003 heatwave western and southern Europe recorded more than 20,000 excess deaths, particularly among elderly people. Crop harvests in many southern countries were down by as much as 30%. Melting reduced the mass of the Alpine glaciers by one-tenth in 2003 alone.
"This report pulls together a wealth of evidence that climate change is already happening and having widespread impacts, many of them with substantial economic costs, on people and ecosystems across Europe," said Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director.
She added: "Europe has to continue to lead worldwide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but this report also underlines that strategies are needed, at European, regional, national and local level, to adapt to climate change. This is a phenomenon that will considerably affect our societies and environments for decades and centuries to come."
The extent and rate of the climate changes under way most likely exceed all natural variation in climate over the last thousand years and possibly longer. The 1990s were the warmest decade on record and the three hottest years recorded - 1998, 2002 and 2003 - have occurred in the last six years. The global warming rate is now almost 0.2 °C per decade.
Europe is warming faster than the global average. The temperature in Europe has risen by an average of 0.95 °C in the last hundred years and is projected to climb by a further 2.0-6.3 °C this century as emissions of greenhouse gases continue building up.
As a first step towards reversing this trend, the world’s governments in 1997 agreed the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty under which industrialised countries would reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases by around 5% between 1990 and 2012.
So far 123 countries, including all member states of the European Union, have ratified the treaty but the US, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has decided against doing so. To enter into force the Protocol still needs ratification by Russia.
In addition to those mentioned above, a broad range of current and future impacts of climate change in Europe are highlighted in the report, including the following:
- Almost two out of every three catastrophic events since 1980 have been directly attributable to floods, storms, droughts or heatwaves. The average number of such weather and climate-related disasters per year doubled over the 1990s compared with the previous decade. Economic losses from such events have more than doubled over the past 20 years to around 11 billion US$ annually. This is due to several reasons, including the greater frequency of such events but also socio-economic factors such as increased household wealth, more urbanisation and more costly infrastructure in vulnerable areas.
- The annual number of floods in Europe and the numbers of people affected by them are rising. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of flooding, particularly of flash floods, which pose the greatest danger to people.
- Climate change over the past three decades has caused decreases in populations of plant species in various parts of Europe, including mountain regions. Some plants are likely to become extinct as other factors, such as fragmentation of habitats, limit the ability of plant species to adapt to climate change.
-Glaciers in eight of Europe’s nine glacial regions are in retreat, and are at their lowest levels for 5,000 years.
- Sea levels in Europe rose by 0.8-3.0 mm per year in the last century. The rate of increase is projected to be 2-4 times higher during this century.
- Projections show that by 2080 cold winters could disappear almost entirely and hot summers, droughts and incidents of heavy rain or hail could become much more frequent.
Climate change does appear to have some positive impacts too, however.
- Agriculture in most parts of Europe, particularly the mid latitudes and northern Europe, could potentially benefit from a limited temperature rise. But while Europe’s cultivated area may expand northwards, in some parts of southern Europe agriculture could be threatened by water shortages. And more frequent extreme weather, especially heatwaves, could mean more bad harvests. Whether positive impacts occur will greatly depend on agriculture’s capacity to adapt to climate change.
- The annual growing season for plants, including agricultural crops, lengthened by an average of 10 days between 1962 and 1995 and is projected to continue getting longer.
- The survival rate of bird species wintering in Europe has improved over the past few decades and is likely to increase further as winter temperatures continue rising.
The report, Impacts of climate change in Europe: An indicator-based assessment, is available at http://reports.eea.eu.int/climate_report_2_2004/en.
Tony Carritt | alfa