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Climate change

Climate change is increasing disaster risk across the globe. Europe is among the worst affected areas, experiencing increased temperatures above the global average, and facing more frequent and severe droughts, floods, extreme weather, and wildfires.

  • Three out of four EU citizens consider climate change to be a very serious problem, according EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change.
  • The IPCC AR6 report reveals that the total net anthropogenic (human caused) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to rise during the period 2010–2019, as have cumulative net CO2 emissions since 1850.
  • The report also reveals that global get GHG emissions that are directly caused by humans were about 12 % higher in 2019 than in 2010, and 54 % higher than in 1990.
  • IPCC AR6 shows modelled pathways for future trends. If global net zero emissions are reached by the early 2050s, warming will be limited to 1.5 °C. If global net zero emissions are reached by the early 2070s, modelled pathways show that warming will be limited to 2 °C.

Key information

The 2020 PESETA IV study concludes that all European regions will be affected by climate change to varying degrees. Europe is experiencing a greater temperature increase than the global average, but the effects of climate change also vary within Europe:

  • The Mediterranean will experience increased heat related mortality, water scarcity, natural habitat loss, forest fires, and energy consumption due to cooling demands.
  • Coastal regions will see increased frequency and severity of storm surges and coastal flooding. Under a high emission situation (between 3.2 °C and 5.4 °C global temperature increase in 2081–2100), coastal regions could suffer economic losses of EUR 39 billion annually by 2050, with that figure increasing to EUR 960 billion by 2100.
  • Alpine tundra would contract by 84 % and practically disappear in the Pyrenees, if global temperatures rise 3 °C or more above pre-industrial levels (see 2020 PESETA IV report). Even if global warming stays within the Paris Agreement’s 2 °C limit, the Alpine tundra would still contract by a substantial amount.

With the current situation alone (not accounting for an increase in global temperature), the EU’s climate change losses would rise from an annual EUR 3.4 billion to EUR 37 billion by 2080, according to this global environmental report.

The 2020 PESETA IV report reveals the following climate risks, in the event of a 3 °C increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels:

In southern and western regions of Europe, increasingly frequent and severe droughts are having a devastating effect on agriculture and water and energy supplies.

The extreme heat weather events caused by a temperature increase to 3 °C above pre-industrial times will result in a thirty-fold increase to heat related mortalities in the EU and the UK, especially affecting southern Europe, according to the PESETA IV key findings. The projected figure could be as high as 90 000 deaths annually, from the current 3 000 annual deaths. If global temperatures rise by 3 °C, nearly 300 million people in the EU and the UK would be exposed to deadly heatwaves annually.

Wildfires are projected to increase as warmer temperatures and longer periods without rain will help fires to ignite and spread. This will ultimately lead to more frequent and intense fires. The PESETA IV study estimates that the probability of high-to-extreme danger of wildfires will rise nearly everywhere in Europe.

Europe is at risk of more frequent and severe extreme weather events due to climate change (see 2020 State of the European Environment report). Extreme weather events are directly worsened by climate change and pose immediate risk to life. They are set to become more frequent and severe. In February 2018, very low temperatures and intense local rain and snow hit Europe, with total rainfall of up to 250 mm in some places. The extreme weather was nicknamed ‘the Beast from the East’ and caused severe disruption over the continent and dozens of deaths.

Flooding is the most common and economically costly natural hazard to affect Europe annually, with all EU Member States identifying it in their national risk assessments. The effects of flooding are set to worsen as a result of increased global temperatures due to increased precipitation in Northern Europe, more extreme weather events, and urban sprawl. Extreme flooding is set to worsen in Europe, especially affecting Northern Europe, putting more people at risk of death, waterborne disease, and injury. Flooding is also severely destructive to infrastructure, expected to cost the EU EUR 7.8 billion annually for river flooding and EUR 1.4 billion for coastal flooding, according to the 2020 PESETA IV report.

The September 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate indicates that due to climate change, the ocean is warmer, more acidic, and less productive. This will exacerbate the loss of glaciers, snow, ice, and permafrost, and accelerate sea level rise. Additionally, coastal extreme weather events are becoming more severe, which causes coastal flooding. The total economic loss for coastal flooding averages EUR 1.4 billion per year.

Pest outbreaks would become more frequent and severe, which would increase biomass loss and carbon release, according to the 2020 PESETA IV report.

Many of these risks will require more energy to be used to mitigate their effects, creating a vicious cycle. For example, more frequent and intense heatwaves (increased use of air conditioning and fans) with more greenhouse gases being emitted and worsening climate change in the long term. IPCC AR 6 WG II on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities” report emphasises the need to avoid maladaptation.

Increased vulnerability

Europe is economically vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Extreme weather already costs the EU an average of EUR 12 billion per year. According to the 2020 PESETA IV report the effects of climate change in Europe, the wider global economic consequences of climate change will have additional international repercussions, which could increase the EU’s welfare loss by approximately a further 20 %. Urban areas have the highest economic losses in disasters due to their high populations and concentrations of homes, businesses, infrastructure, and cultural heritage sites.

Addressing the risk: Policy framework

In terms of EU policy framework that supports limiting global warming, action is being taken to prevent global warming from increasing to 1.5 °C. At international level, the Paris Agreement is a legally binding, worldwide treaty to limit global warming to below 2 °C (preferably 1.5 °C) compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement also provides a framework of technical, financial, and capacity building support to participating countries in need.

The 2022 Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability report reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change.

The EU strategy on adaptation to climate change aims to enhance the EU’s resilience to climate change and disaster risks, by making adaptation smarter and quicker, and to accelerate international action. To do this, the EU strategy enhances Climate-ADAPT, a partnership between the European Commission and the European Environment Agency, as a platform for sharing climate change data and enacting adaptation knowledge.

New EU strategies on biodiversity and forests will step up action to counter the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of ecosystems and help prevent disasters such as wildfires. To complement these policies, the European Climate Pact should mobilise broader public engagement on climate and environmental action throughout the EU. EU’s Farm to Fork strategy adopted in 2020 helps to accelerate the transition to sustainable food systems as current farming systems and the agricultural industry remain one of the key drivers of climate change and environmental degradation.

Additional information

EU policy and legislative context
Relevant stakeholders and instruments
Additional information
An EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (2013)Joint Research Centre (JRC)European Environment Agency Global and European temperatures
Renewed EU Adaptation Strategy to Climate Change (February 2021)European Environment AgencyEuropean Environment Agency Economic losses from climate-related extremes in Europe
The European Green DealEU Solidarity FundGlobal Energy and Climate Outlook 2019
Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate changeCopernicus Emergency Management ServiceKnowledge for transition to a sustainable Europe
Farm to Fork strategyEuropean Floods Awareness SystemJRC PESETA IV final report
New EU forest strategy for 2030Global Flood Awareness SystemMapping and assessment of ecosystems and their services
European Climate PactAccident Damage Analysis Module (ADAM)SEscalating impacts of climate extremes on critical infrastructures in Europe
Taxonomy on Sustainable investments contributing to adaptationIPCC Working Groups Climate-ADAPTThe European Environment Agency, Land take in Europe
The Paris Agreement The European Environment Agency. The changing faces of Europe's coastal areas
  IPCC 6th assessment report: WG 2 “Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability”
  IPCC: Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC
  IPCC: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate
  IPCC AR6 Report
  Balancing the future of Europe's coasts
  The European Environment Agency. Global and European sea-level rise
Last updated: 1 August 2023