From flooding to wildfires: Why 2024’s elections will make or break Europe’s climate adaptation policies

Recent months have seen physical climate impacts crystalising more intensely and sooner than many scientists had first anticipated. 2023 was officially the warmest year on record globally, and the new year began with the warmest January to date.

For readers in the UK, where edie is based, we’ve also been through unprecedented levels of rainfall in January plus the warmest February on record – two months that collectively marked the end of an extremely active storm season for Britain.

Disruption to transport, the flooding of homes and farms and the tragic loss of life evidence that the UK is not robustly prepared for this kind of season.

And without significant changes to policy, the UK’s official climate advisors have stated, the situation will worsen. Wednesday (13 March) saw the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) warning that the national Government’s current national adaptation programme is “inadequate”.

Committee members have accused Ministers of largely regurgitating existing policies rather than drawing up new interventions in designing the programme, which was released in the summer of 2023. The programme is described as “incremental” at best.

As such, the UK is progressing less than half of the urgent actions which the Committee recommended for the near term to minimise risks to infrastructure, homes, people and nature.

The warning from the CCC came just days after a similar call to action was issued by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The EEA has called for “decisive action” to be taken now to avoid “critical or catastrophic levels of risk by the end of this century”, resulting in impacts including annual heatwave-related death numbers in the hundreds of thousands, up from around 60,000 in 2022.

Here, edie outlines the four policy gaps that the next Governments in the UK and the EU will need to close rapidly to safeguard their economies and populations from the physical impacts of the climate crisis.

Setting out a top-line, strategic focus

Both the CCC and the EEA are warning that policymakers broadly fail to grasp the urgency of the need to build in adaptive measures and, as such, most European nations have not made this a green policy priority.

The EEA identified 36 major climate risks facing the EU and found that, for almost two-thirds, greater preparation is required immediately and policy support is needed.

“Each of these risks alone has the potential to cause significant environmental degradation, economic damage, social emergencies and political turbulences,” the EEA report reads. “Their combined effects are even more impactful.”

It goes on to add: “A systems approach to adaptation and resilience building must be prioritised on both the EU and Member State level. This will help transcend sector silos and isolated risk drivers to better account for cascading and compounding risks.”

Similarly, the CCC has stated that the UK Government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has failed to make strategic policymaking for adaptation a priority. Committee members have also seen weak to no evidence that other central Government departments are taking responsibility for the delivery of the third national adaptation plan (NAP3).

A CCC statement reads: “The present approach of coordination by Defra is not working. Effective cross-Government collaboration is needed to ensure all departments are engaged with adaptation and recognise the challenges that climate impacts can have across multiple sectors at any one time.”

Clarifying nature restoration plans

Both the EEA and the CCC reports make it clear that climate change is already harming ecosystems, thereby reducing their capability to offer climate adaptation benefits. It can quickly become a vicious cycle, with the climate and nature crises feeding into each other and intensifying threats to human health, food security, energy security and water supply.

European nations are being called upon to integrate their commitments to protect and restore nature, made on the international stage through the UN’s Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Treaty, into updated adaptation plans. The Treaty stipulates that nations should strive to restore 30% of land and sea this decade and reform environmentally harmful subsidies in order to redirect money to activities that help nature rather than causing harm.

The former target was enshrined in UK law via the Environment Act. But policymakers have been told by NGOs and by their own peers that the Government lacks a robust delivery plan with credible targets and significant finance, with delays potentially relating to two changes in Prime Minister during 2022.

The EU faces similar challenges over the politicization of nature restoration. Its landmark nation restoration package was voted through in February but continues to face fierce opposition from right-wing lawmakers who see risks to productivity in sectors like forestry, agriculture and aquaculture in the near-term.

The EEA report recommends that policymakers do not give into these arguments. It warns that a failure to add adaptive measures to ecosystems now will ultimately increase the risk of collapse in the longer term.

Facilitating a shift in land use

Nature restoration will, in part, need to happen on land which is currently used for food production. The EEA report makes clear that, done well, this will help food security in the long-term rather than harming it.

Other actions will also need to be taken to adapt to warmer temperatures, wetter winters and drier summers. These include setting up on-farm water storage facilities and additional nearby reservoirs; implementing more water-efficient processes for growing crops and rolling out more drought-resilient varieties of crops.

Such actions could be embedded into reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the EEA has stated. Changes need to be made to incentivise more sustainable practices and support farmers with the costs of additional equipment and education, its report concludes.

The UK Government touted leaving the CAP as a potential ‘Brexit benefit’ and has pushed ahead with payment scheme reforms that will see farmers compensated for ‘public goods’ such as clean air and water as well as for their food output. The CCC wants to see this built upon with a broader plan to map land use in the UK at present as well as future land-use scenarios. They also want the Government to stop sending mixed messaging on food security, nature and renewable energy.

The CCC has been calling for this map since its first land-use report more than four years ago. This has only become more salient of an issue due to historically unmet targets to scale Britain’s housing stock.

That report also advocated for a target to cut red meat and dairy consumption by 20% per capita within a decade – something the Conservative Government has vocally spoken against.

The EEA report also mentions dietary changes, noting how it is water and land-intensive to grow crops for animal feed. It states that a shift to more plant-based diets can, therefore, be a climate adaptation intervention.

Preparing healthcare providers  

The EEA’s report states that Southern European countries already face “substantial” risks to their farmland, energy systems and healthcare systems due to the increased risk of prolonged droughts or wildfires. These events, in turn, make the land less able to deal with rainfall in the future.

The report emphasises that the region’s healthcare systems risk being overwhelmed due to the health impacts of exposure to smoke from more frequent wildfires, plus new and emerging risks related to disease transmission.

“Southern Europe is now warm enough for mosquitoes to transmit formerly tropical diseases, including dengue and chikungunya,” the researchers write.

They note that deaths relating to heat stress are not unique to Southern European nations, with up to 70,000 premature deaths recorded during summer heatwaves in 2022 across the EU.

Nations have been encouraged to include health in their national adaptation plans through agreements reached at the UN’s annual climate summit. The CCC’s report argues that the UK is not meeting the stipulated requirements here and is still setting public health policies in a silo away from climate and nature.

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