Europe and the world have to prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change. COVID-19 has made things more difficult, but it has also created an unprecedented opportunity: to use the EU recovery funds to revitalise the economy and at the same time ensure that the EU becomes climate-resilient and fully adapted, while achieving climate-neutrality.
The big test begins this week, on 22 April, with the Leaders Summit on climate, hosted by President Biden on Earth Day, and on 23 April, with the EU Council meeting of environment ministers. All eyes on us. The virtual summit aims to galvanise efforts by the world's major economies to tackle the climate crisis. It is hoped that the talks will focus on the urgency and economic benefits of stronger climate action. On 15 March, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a remote hearing on the New EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, as part of preparations for the upcoming EESC opinion on the subject, to be put to the vote at the 8-9 June plenary session.
It is clear that this Commission's New EU Adaptation Strategy is more than welcome, in line with the European Green Deal, and it shows that the green transformation is an opportunity. We have several tools; we have the money, now we have to start investing in adaptation. However, there are four things we don't have: time, as we have used it up; international cooperation: the US and China have to come on board; new technologies: we still don't know how they will influence adaptation; and the private sector: we have to seriously encourage its investment. The key is to find tangible solutions to adapt our climate policy, stressed EESC rapporteur, Dimitris Dimitriadis.
The new Adaptation Strategy: ambitious enough?
The European Commission has adopted this new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, following a 2018 evaluation of the previous 2013 Strategy. The conclusion was that not enough progress has been made, due to: gaps in data; weaknesses in planning, monitoring, reporting and evaluating; slow-pace action as a result of inadequate public and private-sector investment; a failure to address climate impacts generated outside the EU; and the voluntary nature of the MS commitments at the time. This time Europe has to get it right.
Lídia Pereira, Member of the European Parliament, pointed out some of its shortcomings, stating that it should have gone further.
There is a sizeable financing gap for climate-resilience investments in Europe. Similar to the Just Transition Fund that supports regions' transition away from coal, the Just Adaptation Fund would need to support regions affected by climate change, which are not even responsible for causing the damage.
The EESC calls for an "equal emphasis" on financing mitigation and adaptation. It is crucial for all climate policies at all levels to combine mitigation and adaptation strategies, stressed Kęstutis Kupšys, EESC co-rapporteur.
Sergiy Moroz, an expert on climate adaptation at the European Environment Bureau (EEB), pointed to the most striking concerns set out in the EEB assessment report:
We are missing concrete and measurable targets in the strategy, legally binding measures and deadlines, in order for it to be really implemented and for the European community to be climate resilient.
As the strategy didn't bring any additional funding for adaptation, we definitely have to use the existing money better (for example the Common Agriculture Policy one), and avoid maladaptation across all sectors, especially in agriculture. In essence, the adaptation strategy is good, but we need additional tools there. It is something that we don't have but it can still be introduced in upcoming legislation such as the Fit for 55 package, the Climate Law, the Climate Package and the Nature Restoration Law, he concluded.
Leaving no one behind – climate adaptation underpinned by climate justice
It is urgent to seek better alignment of climate adaptation policies with climate justice. The upcoming challenges call for no one to be left behind and for the needs of the most vulnerable to be addressed first, and in this respect the active role of trade unions and social dialogue in climate action is crucial, stressed Isabel Caño Aguilar, study group president for the EESC opinion.
Ludovic Voet, ETUC Confederal Secretary, stated that the strategy fails to protect workers, and that ETUC's struggle is to have a chapter on the adaptation related to the world of work.
The health and safety of outdoor workers will be particularly affected by the rise in temperature and heatwaves. Besides new needs in terms of skills, a study from DG CLIMA shows that if no adaptation measure is taken to protect employment, 410 000 jobs could be at risk by 2050.
Léna Prouchet from Generation Climate Europe, made the point that,
despite the fact that the strategy clearly states that unequal exposure and vulnerability to climate impacts worsens pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, it fails to address them properly.
Youth will be one of the sections of society most affected by the consequences of climate change. Even so, the strategy only mentions the word youth twice, and never as part of the solution. We gathered the thoughts of EU Youth for a 2020 report entitled "Young Voices on Climate Justice", and one of the key concerns of youth regarding climate justice is eco-anxiety. They fear for their future if the political world and society as a whole doesn't take action now, she argued.
Antoine Lucic, a junior policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy – IEEP, pointed to the importance of acting now.
The impacts will be different for people depending on where they live and who they are… southern countries will be hard hit, and the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. To give an example: during the heatwaves of 2013 and 2017, in Hungary, the public water supply of a Roma community was shut down, affecting around 2 000 people each time, he pointed out.
We need more nature-based solutions. However, these solutions have become a bit trendy and we have to be vigilant and avoid corporate offset schemes. When communities are not involved in designing the solutions (bottom-up approach), even well intentioned ones, we can come up with worse situations than before. As an example, the non-native monoculture forest plantation in Ireland, which was not considered beneficial to the community or to biodiversity, he emphasised.
Key strands of the new Adaptation Strategy – delivering solutions
The implementation of the Strategy, as well as the European Green Deal (EGD), should be conceived via a systemic approach, aspiring to simultaneously address multiple objectives and promote policy instruments and technological solutions that can be used across the various sectors of the economy.
Oana Neagu, representing COPA-COGECA, stressed that:
We know that food and biomass production will be exposed to even more extreme weather events and rising temperatures in the future. That is why our farming and forestry communities have already started to make significant efforts to adapt to these constantly changing climate conditions, at the same time as they are ensuring biomass security and affordable food. One of the examples is the precision agriculture. To be able to continue to do this in the future, it is crucial to ensure we have coherent policies. We also need to invest, innovate and cooperate smarter and faster, she underlined.
Our sectors have the potential to significantly increase the adaptation and mitigation efforts, to absorb CO2 and reduce emissions and boost rural economies in a sustainable manner and we should not forget that in Europe we have the highest sustainability standards. That is why the future of the EU cannot rely on decreasing our productivity and shifting production as well as climate impacts to third countries, she said.
International cooperation is also key and needs to be built on the commitments of the Paris agreement – without compromising food security.
Jean-Eudes Moncomble, chair of the Sustainability Board, SGI Europe (Services of General Interest) stressed that:
When we talk about adaptation, we are lagging behind on knowledge that is why it is so important to share knowledge and know-how to find the best solutions. It is clear that if we mitigate carbon emissions, then we will have to make less of an effort to adapt. Unfortunately, we are at a stage where we cannot avoid implementing adaptation policies as well.
Another important concern in adaptation is water resources. Water is vital for human lives, agriculture, and energy. Climate change has an impact on the production of energy every time there are droughts, for instance, putting at risk the supply of these general interest services to citizens and society as a whole. This gives a sense of dimension to the problem. The policies have to be more inclusive.
Adaptation becomes a priority for policy decision-making
This strategy equips the EU with the tools, the objectives and the vision for a climate-resilient EU society, fully adapted to climate change by 2050, emphasised Elena Višnar Malinovská, head of the climate adaptation unit in DG CLIMA.
It has four main objectives: Smarter, faster, and more systemic adaptation, and stepping up international action for climate resilience. It is combined with several instruments, such as the Climate Law (ruling on very important adaptation provisions), the Climate Pact (which allows us to go deeper in the vertical integration, from city level to individual level), and the Biodiversity, Forest and Soil strategies, to complete the circle. Imagining a word cloud of the strategy, we would have: water, impact, action, risk and solutions, which is the essence of the strategy, she added.
The EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change is also a very important file for the Portuguese presidency of the Council, as it is one its priorities, but also of the trio (Germany, Portugal, Slovenia).
Patrícia Lopes, Environment Attaché of the Portuguese Council presidency, stressed that
adaptation is no longer an issue for the southern countries, it is a European and a global problem. We have a very ambitious timeframe, with an informal meeting of the Environment Ministers on 23 April, with a focus on adaptation and on water management, where we invite the Member States to give practical examples, and jump from a theoretical point of view to a practical one. We will also give relevance to the international aspect. Coincidently, on 22 April, the EU-US climate summit will start, and it is time for Europe to take the lead on adaptation, as we already did with mitigation and start to prepare for COP26.
Markku Markkula, rapporteur for the climate adaptation opinion at the Committee of the Regions, emphasised that local action is crucial.
The key is to create a practical roadmap that defines plenty of actions to be undertaken by a political commitment at national, regional and city level with the industries. For example, we have done this in the Helsinki region to get rid of coal in less than 10 years. We are still using it, but we are increasing biofuel, geothermal, renewal of the processes, taking heat from data centres and from wastewaters. In Finland, half of the recovery funds will be green, and we are aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2035, he concluded.
Phoebe Koundouri – environmental economics professor at the University in Athens, made some final remarks, stating that:
In order to be able to accelerate the adaptation, we need to focus on the finance. We should use the existing structures, the Green Deal and the recovery and resilience funds to finance adaptation. We also need a systems innovation approach, and stakeholder involvement. The legally binding measures are crucial, and they should be monitored, and the finance should be connected to the funds, so that the implementation is finally achieved.