Europe is responding too slowly to climate change, research shows

European governments are responding far too slowly to the rapidly increasing risks of climate change. Without further action, some of those risks – including heat stress and declines in agricultural yields – could reach “critical levels” in the coming decades, and “catastrophic levels” later this century. This is stated by the European Environment Agency in the first climate risk analysis for the EU. The report was published this Monday.

For each of five sectors (public health, food, infrastructure, ecosystems, and economy and finance), the agency examined 36 risks, including heat stress, floods, fire hazards for the population and nature, financial instability, decline in agricultural yields, decline in tourism , disruption of energy supplies and loss of biodiversity.

The most risk

The agency emphasizes that it is not only climate change that determines the severity of the risks. Climate change intertwines with other factors, such as social inequality, unsustainable agriculture, pollution and land use (for example, where construction takes place and where it does not). That is why the European Environment Agency advocates a holistic, integrated approach involving many policy areas.

The analysis identifies three geographic areas most at risk. Firstly, Southern Europe, especially due to the growing impact of heat and drought on agriculture, outdoor work, summer tourism and fires. Secondly, low-lying coastal areas are vulnerable to flooding, erosion and salinization, partly due to accelerating sea level rise. And thirdly, the so-called outer areas of the EU, which are at risk because they are so remote, have weak infrastructure and often depend on only a few economic activities. These are (sub)tropical islands and coastal areas, such as the Azores, La Réunion and Sint Maarten.

Vulnerable, according to the agency, are also areas that depend on tourism, agriculture, fishing or forestry, including mountain areas such as the Alps and large parts of Northern Europe. The same applies to areas with high unemployment, poverty and emigration (especially Central-Eastern Europe) and densely populated areas.

Shade and cooling

There are additional risks for the ‘public health’ sector due to, among other things, worsening heat waves and fires. In the summer of 2022, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people will have died prematurely due to heat. According to the agency, policy should focus more on vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. For example, there should be more greenery in cities, for shade and cooling.

Extreme fires also raged in 2022 and last year in Greece, Portugal and Italy, among others, with dozens of deaths. In the Netherlands, researchers already called for more measures against wildfires last January.

The ‘economy and finance’ sector is also at risk. Financial institutions already have to carry out a climate stress test, but do not take into account the combined effects of risks (such as heat and drought). European solidarity funds have already been oversubscribed due to costly events such as floods and wildfires.

Of the five sectors examined, ecosystems are most at risk. For example, maritime and coastal areas are already experiencing marine heat waves, acidification and the expansion of anoxic areas due to warming. But here too, it is not just climate change that determines the severity of the situation. The level of overfishing and pollution, for example, also has an influence.

Smarter, faster and wider

The agency advises the EU and Member States to do more to protect nature. The just adopted European Nature and Recovery Act helps with this, but according to the agency, more is needed.

This also applies in a broader sense. Everything necessary is happening, but it is too little, too slow, according to the agency. For example, at the beginning of 2021, the European Commission published a ‘adaptation strategy‘ adopted – a strategy to adapt to climate change smarter, faster and more widely. But its goals are vague, and member states’ efforts are often voluntary, the agency believes.

The European Environment Agency carried out the analysis on behalf of the European Commission. It was urged to carry out such an analysis by the European Parliament in September 2022 adopted a resolution to conduct research into the risks of climate change, in particular drought, fires and other extreme weather phenomena.