Our climate is changing. Scientific evidence shows that the global average temperature is rising, and rainfall patterns are shifting. It also shows that glaciers, Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland ice sheet are melting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report shows that the warming since the mid-20th century is predominantly due to an increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations as a result of emissions from human activities. Combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use are largely responsible for this increase.
It is clear that we need to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions substantially in order to avoid the most adverse impacts of climate change. It is also clear that we need to adapt to our changing climate. Even with substantial reductions in our greenhouse-gas emissions, our climate is expected to change to some degree and the impacts of this will be felt across the world, including in Europe. Floods and droughts are expected to become more frequent and intense. Warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation levels and patterns, or extreme weather events are already impacting our health, natural environment, and economy.
Climate change affects us
We might not be aware of it but climate change affects us all: farmers, fishermen, asthma patients, the elderly, infants, urban residents, skiers, beachgoers… Extreme weather events, such as floods and storm surges, can devastate small communities — and even regions and countries. Heatwaves can exacerbate air pollution, aggravating cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and in some cases resulting in loss of life.
Warmer oceans risk unbalancing the entire food chain, and hence marine life, adding extra pressures to already overexploited fish stocks. Higher temperatures can also change the carbon storage capacity of the soil — the second largest carbon sink after the oceans. Droughts and warmer temperatures can impact agricultural production, driving up the competition between economic sectors for precious resources like water and land.
These impacts result in real losses. Recent research estimates that without adaptation actions heat-related deaths could reach about 200 000 per year in Europe by 2100. The cost of river flood damages could be more than EUR 10 billion a year. Other climate-change impacts include the damage from forest fires, reduced crop yields, or lost workdays due to respiratory diseases.
Faced with such current and future impacts, Europeans have no choice but to adapt to climate change. A European Union-level adaptation strategy is already in place to help countries plan their adaptation activities, and more than 20 European countries have adopted national adaptation strategies.
Some ongoing adaptation projects involve large projects to build new infrastructure (e.g. dykes and flood drains), whereas others propose restoring ecosystems to allow nature to tackle climate change impacts such as excess water or heat. Different initiatives and funding opportunities exist to help countries, cities, and regions prepare for climate change impacts and reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.
The severity of climate change will depend on how much and how quickly we can cut greenhouse-gas emissions released into the atmosphere. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our times. It is a global problem and concerns us all. The scientific community strongly recommends limiting the rise in global average temperatures and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid adverse impacts of climate change. Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international community has agreed to limit the global average temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial times.
If the global average temperature increases above 2°C, climate change will have much more severe impacts on our health, natural environment, and economy. An average 2°C increase means that temperatures will actually rise more than 2°C in certain parts of the world, especially in the Arctic, where greater impacts will threaten unique natural systems.
The European Union has set ambitious long-term goals on climate-change mitigation. In 2013, the EU had already reduced its domestic greenhouse-gas emissions by 19% compared to 1990 levels. The target of a 20% reduction by 2020 is within reach.
Achieving a reduction of at least 40% in domestic emissions (i.e. emitted in the EU) by 2030 and an 80-95% reduction by 2050 will partly depend on the EU’s ability to channel sufficient amounts of public and private funds towards sustainable and innovative technologies. Effective carbon prices and regulations are instrumental in steering investments towards climate-friendly innovations, in renewable energy and energy efficiency in particular. In some cases, funding decisions might also entail divesting away from some sectors and restructuring others.
Emission reductions by EU Member States would address the problem only partly, because the EU currently emits only around 10% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. It is clear that achieving the 2°C target requires a global effort with substantial cuts to global greenhouse-gas emissions. The scientific community estimates that to achieve the 2°C target only a limited amount of carbon can be released into the atmosphere before the end of the century. The world has already released the large majority of this ‘carbon budget’. At current rates, the entire carbon budget will be exhausted well before 2100.
To increase our chances of limiting the average temperature increase to 2°C, scientific studies show that global emissions have to peak in 2020, and then start declining. In this context, the upcoming climate talks (COP21) in Paris need to become a turning point for a global agreement on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and providing support to developing countries.
A low-carbon future by 2050 is possible
At the heart of the problem lie unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Building on recent trends observed in Europe’s environment and on global megatrends, our recent report ‘The European environment — state and outlook 2015’ calls for a transition to a green economy. The green economy is a sustainable way of life that allows us to live well, and within the limits of our planet. This transition involves structural changes to key systems, such as energy and transport, which require long-term investments in our infrastructure.
Europeans are already investing in these key systems. The challenge is to make sure that all current and future investments put us one step closer to greening our economy, and do not lock us into an unsustainable path of development. Making the right investments today will not only minimise the overall costs of climate change, but it can strengthen Europe’s expertise in the thriving eco-industries — the economy of the future. At the end of the day, we all have a stake in defining what life with climate change will look like.
The challenge we are facing might seem daunting. But no matter how big the challenge may be, the 2°C target is still within our reach. We now need to be courageous and ambitious enough to grasp it.