“Climate change adaptation is mainly about water” – UN-Water brief on climate and water management.
“It is impossible to talk about adaptation to climate change without talking about water and water related issues.” – Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard speaking to the European Parliament Water Group in 2010.
“If climate change is the shark, then water is its teeth” – Paul Dickinson, Chief Executive Officer of the Carbon Disclosure Project.
In the past, mitigation (reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to avoid the worst warming scenarios) and adaptation (changing the way we do things to cope as best we can with a warming world) have sometimes been seen in opposition to each other as mutually exclusive pathways the world can take in response to climate change. Now it is generally recognised that they must be complementary: we will certainly have to adapt to a certain amount of warming that is no longer avoidable, but through mitigation we can still hope to avoid dangerous warming scenarios at a lower social and economic cost than adapting to them.
Water is top of the list when it comes to climate impacts with which we must grapple. In Europe the likely impacts on water include:
- Larger areas and populations will become subject to water stress and scarcity, particularly in southern Europe.
- Increased rainfall and extreme rain events will make flooding more frequent across much of the rest of the continent. The same effect will lead to greater erosion and risk of landslides.
- There are also challenges for water quality, with flooding as well as warmer water leading to increased microbial loads.
- Economic impacts are likely to be felt particularly by the agriculture, energy and tourism sectors.
Change in annual and summer precipitation for 2071–2100 vs 1961–1990 (%) :
Following up on its 2009 white paper, the European Commission has just published an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change. The proposed strategy is not prescriptive. Instead it focuses on providing guidance to member states, building knowledge and capacity, and mainstreaming adaptation action throughout EU programmes. There is no call among member states for a harmonised approach to adaptation, and the Commission does not propose at this stage to set binding targets in this area. However it will monitor the quality and effectiveness of national adaptation strategies and in 2017 assess whether a legally binding instrument is necessary.
Eight main actions are identified in the strategy:
1. Encourage all Member States to adopt comprehensive adaptation strategies.
The Commission will provide guidelines for the formulation of these national strategies and will create a set of indicators to assess readiness. To date 15 member states have already adopted adaptation strategies, although many, including Ireland’s, are high-level frameworks that will require a great deal of additional work before they start to drive concrete actions. The European Environment Agency tracks the status and content of national plans on the Climate-ADAPT web site.
2. Provide LIFE funding to support capacity building and step up adaptation action in Europe. (2013-2020).
The LIFE programme already funds a large number of water projects across Europe, including wastewater treatment, water quality and water saving projects. It also has as a specific objective the adaptation of water resources to the adverse impacts of climate change. However the programme is most effective at enabling innovation and demonstration projects, and large-scale adaptation projects including flood defences and water infrastructure will have to be funded elsewhere: from national resources, cohesion funding or the Rural Development Programme for example.
3. Introduce adaptation in the Covenant of Mayors framework (2013/2014).
The Covenant of Mayors is a Commission-backed initiative whereby more than 4,000 regional and local authorities have committed to increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources. Adding climate adaptation to this voluntary movement makes a lot of sense, given the degree of responsibility these authorities have for management of water resources, infrastructure development, and emergency planning.
4. Bridge the knowledge gap.
5. Further develop Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe.
These linked actions are aimed at meeting the needs of member states and other actors for better information on which to base their adaptation programmes. Research to fill gaps in knowledge on climate vulnerabilities, the costs and benefits of adaptation, risk assessments, adaptation frameworks, models and tools will be funded as part of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, due to run from 2014 to 2020.
6. Facilitate the climate-proofing of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Cohesion Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Delivering this action effectively would possibly do most to ensure the success of the strategy, as it will mainstream climate adaptation throughout the Union’s biggest spending programmes. However each of these programmes is heavily contended politically and has to work its way through its own tortuous process. It will not be easy to ensure the finished articles are robust in terms of meeting adaptation needs, although the proposed earmarking of 20% of the EU’s budget for climate action, including adaptation, may help.
7. Ensuring [sic] more resilient infrastructure
This is another mainstreaming action, with the aim of ensuring that standards for infrastructure development include adaptation considerations. The issues paper on infrastructure accompanying the strategy focuses on transport, energy and buildings, with a promise that water and other sectors will be addressed during the implementation phase of the strategy.
8. Promote insurance and other financial products for resilient investment and business decisions.
The aim here is to improve the market penetration of insurance against major disasters and is being advanced through the simultaneous publication of a Green Paper on the issue.
Overall, the strategy is welcome as a high-level plan for mainstreaming adaptation in the EU’s programmes and activities. A possible criticism is that it is reminiscent of the traditional “predict-and-provide” model of planning, whereby researchers are funded to uncover the best possible data about future needs, policy makers are mandated to produce plans based on these data, and big infrastructure developments are rolled out in line with these plans. In reality climate adaptation calls for an iterative approach that is sensitive to change over time, both in our understanding of the impacts and in our social and economic circumstances.
In respect of water, a 2012 paper by researchers at NUI Maynooth calls for a switch from “impacts thinking” to a process-oriented “vulnerability thinking”. “Adaptation strategies should be evaluated according to the best available knowledge on climate change on a regular basis and be reconsidered if necessary. This adaptation approach ensures flexibility and the ability to respond to changes as revised climate scenarios emerge.” This calls for mixing “soft strategies” such as demand management and leakage reduction with the “hard” responses such as infrastructure renewal and flood risk management.
This theme is echoed in the European Environment Agency’s just-published “Adaptation in Europe” report, which divides possible adaptation responses into “grey” (engineering and technology projects), “green” (ecosystem-based approaches) and “soft” (policies and projects to change governance and behaviour). EEA Director Jacqueline McGlade, in her foreword to the report writes, “It is important to adopt an ‘adaptive management’ approach, which means adjusting our plans to these conditions as they unfold, taking account of uncertainty over future developments, and constantly updating our adaptation policy with new information from monitoring, evaluation and learning.”
In the water sector it is clear that all categories of response will be required, but environmental NGOs feel that ecosystem-based approaches are not getting the attention they deserve. Sergiy Moroz, Senior Water Policy Officer with the WWF points to projects such as floodplain restoration along the Danube as examples of responses that, through helping make existing ecosystems more resilient, have benefits for drinking water, biodiversity and flood protection.
Although much adaptation action will take place at a local level, the impacts of climate change on water quality and availability clearly won’t respect national borders. Fortunately, the EU already has an instrument in place for addressing water issues on a cross-border basis in the Water Framework Directive. What’s more, the WFD reflects nature in being river basin oriented, and works on an iterative basis with river basin management plans being reviewed every six years. This existing and mature policy regime might provide the best potential for a robust, mainstream European climate adaptation programme that works with nature and allows us to iteratively grapple with the uncertainty inherent in the climate arena.