Official Journal of the European Union

C 128/122

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the White Paper ‘Adapting to climate change: Towards a European framework for action’

(COM(2009) 147 final)

(2010/C 128/23)

Rapporteur: Mr OSBORN

On 1 April 2009 the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under the first paragraph of Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the:

White paper ‘Adapting to climate change: Towards a European framework for action’

(COM(2009) 147 final).

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 13 October 2009.

At its 457th plenary session, held on 4 and 5 November 2009 (meeting of 5 November 2009), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 183 votes to 3 with 6 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.   Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the world in the 21st century. Action to limit these changes by limiting emissions of greenhouse gases is the top priority. Nevertheless it is also important to plan ahead in good time for adapting to such changes as have now become unavoidable.

1.2.   In 2007 the Commission published a Green Paper on Adaptation. Following extensive consultation on that document and further analysis the Commission has now published a White Paper ‘Adapting to climate change: towards a European framework for action’ on which the Committee’s opinion is sought.

1.3.   In the Committee’s earlier opinion on the Green Paper (1) the EESC recommended that an over-arching European adaptation strategy should be put in place as a framework outlining the actions that will need to be taken at European level, at the national level, and by other actors. The White Paper now proposes just such a framework and the Committee welcomes its general approach.

1.4.   The Committee considers, however, that some of the actions proposed by the Commission do not have sufficient urgency and are not specific enough. In particular the Committee urges:

A stronger role for the co-ordinating European strategy pulling together a set of national adaptation strategies;

A tighter timetable for further development of the strategy giving particular attention to issues or areas that may require the most urgent adaptation measures to be put in place;

The establishment of an independent high level committee or body to monitor progress on mitigation and adaptation in Europe and to draw attention publicly to issues where progress is falling short;

An early effort to quantify the scale of adaptation expenditures that are likely to be needed in Europe (comparable to the admirable efforts that the Commission has already made to quantify developing countries' needs in this regard);

More intense collaboration at least at OECD level and preferably worldwide, since adaptation must be global in its scope;

Greater effort to engage the public and civil society in developing plans and actions for adaptation.

2.   The White Paper and its background

2.1.   Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the world in the 21st century. Action to limit these changes by limiting emissions of greenhouse gases must be the top priority for the world and for the forthcoming meeting of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen. However it is also important to plan ahead in good time for adapting to such changes as have now become unavoidable.

2.2.   In 2007 the Commission published a Green Paper on Adaptation. Following extensive consultation on that document (including an opinion from the Committee) the Commission has now published a White Paper ‘Adapting to climate change: towards a European framework for action’ on which the Committee’s opinion is sought. Many of the points in the Committee’s earlier opinion are reflected to a considerable extent in the White Paper.

2.3.   The White Paper starts from the recognition that significant climate change is already happening in the world and that substantially more will occur leading to serious impacts on many sectors that need to be planned for now. There are many uncertainties about the extent of the impacts and how they will be distributed geographically, depending in part on how successful the world’s efforts are to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. But even in the most optimistic mitigation scenario, big changes will have to be adapted to, and which need to be planned for now.

2.4.   For the European region the White Paper identifies several sectors that are likely to be particularly affected:

Agriculture and forestry

Fisheries and aquaculture, coastal and marine ecosystems

Infrastructure and its vulnerability to extreme events and to sea level rises


Human health and plant health

Water resources

Ecosystems and biodiversity.

2.5.   The White Paper suggests that the most effective strategies are likely to be based on working with nature’s capacity to absorb or control impacts rather than simply focusing on physical infrastructure. It refers to a Green Infrastructure approach set out in the Impact Assessment.

2.6.   The White Paper argues that autonomous adaptation by individuals and businesses affected by these impacts is unlikely to achieve the optimal results. It sees a clear case for preventive policy measures in order to head off inappropriate actions (‘mal-adaptations’) and to secure the economic, social and environmental advantages of earlier rather than later action.

2.7.   The White Paper recognises that most adaptation measures will need to be taken at the national, regional or local level, but sees a clear role for European involvement in areas where problems transcend national boundaries, and in sectors where there are already well-developed European competences and activities that can themselves have a significant influence on adaptation.

2.8.   The White Paper now proposes a two-phase framework for action. In the first phase (2009-2012) it proposes four pillars of action and a set of actions for the EU and Member States under each of these headings:

Building a solid knowledge base

Integrating adaptation into EU key policy areas

Employing a combination of policy instruments to ensure effective delivery of adaptation

Stepping up international cooperation on adaptation.

2.9.   For the second phase, starting in 2013, a more comprehensive adaptation strategy is envisaged, but the White Paper currently does not provide any detail of its possible scope.

3.   General comments

3.1.   In the Committee’s earlier opinion on the Green Paper (NAT/368) the EESC recommended that an over-arching European adaptation strategy should be put in place as a framework, outlining the actions that will need to be taken at European level, at national level and by other actors. The White Paper now proposes just such a framework, which includes many of the points recommended by the Committee in its earlier opinion. The Committee naturally welcomes this, and the general approach described in the White Paper.

Under many of the headings, however, the form of action proposed is rather tentative. Several proposed actions are to be explored, considered, assessed or encouraged. None are to be required or mandated, and there seems to be no immediate prospect of legislation in this field. In view of the increasing severity of climate change impacts and the importance of a European lead on this, the Committee believes that Europe should move more quickly towards a more prescriptive strategy with more specific objectives. The rest of this opinion outlines some key elements of the stronger strategy which the Committee believes Europe should work towards.

3.2.1.    - Although much of the practical action needed to adapt to climate change will need to be taken at local, regional and national levels the Committee agrees with the Commission that there is a need for significant European involvement as well. There are a number of reasons for this:

Analysis of likely changes and impacts will require major research and monitoring efforts that would benefit from co-ordination at European level.

Some of the problems that will arise will cross national boundaries and will need a concerted response.

The impacts will differ markedly from one part of Europe to another, and some of the poorer regions may be amongst the most severely affected, pointing to a need for burden sharing through cohesion or other mechanisms.

Several of the Commission’s key policies and programmes including the CAP and the structural funds will need to be adjusted in the light of climate change in order to make them better fit for purpose.

Looking beyond Europe there will need to be a major international effort to assist the least developed countries of the South that are likely to suffer more severely from climate change with less capacity to adapt adequately. The EU would be best placed to co-ordinate European efforts in this area.

Above all, the challenge of adapting adequately and in good time to the coming changes in our climate requires the political leaders of Europe to work together in a common enterprise that transcends national boundaries.

For all these reasons the Committee fully supports the need to develop a strong European strategy on adaptation, and urges the Commission to develop the strategy more decisively and with more specific objectives as soon as it can.

Since climate change is global in nature, so adaptation programmes must also be global in approach, all the more so since this change most deeply impacts those least developed countries that are also the most vulnerable. The OECD is undertaking a major initiative on this front and EU frameworks and programmes should also be fully coordinated at this level.

At the same time as developing actions at European level it is also vital to stimulate more vigorous action at national, regional and local level. The background information to the White Paper shows that there is a great variety of approaches at national level at present, and that some member states have made much more progress than others in analysing their own situations and in developing appropriate adaptation strategies. To give more impetus to the adaptation process the Committee suggests that it would now be helpful for a European initiative to mandate common parameters and timetables for the establishment of national adaptation strategies.

3.2.2.    - The Commission proposes a two stage process, the first running from 2009 to 2012 during which the knowledge base would be strengthened, adaptation would be integrated into key EU policy areas, measures would be developed and international cooperation efforts would be strengthened. Only in a second phase starting in 2013 would a fully comprehensive adaptation strategy be developed.

3.2.3.   The Committee understands the logic of this two stage approach. But it is concerned that it may be too leisurely for the urgency of the problem. Impacts of climate change are already beginning to make themselves felt both within Europe and more acutely in other parts of the world. Even if mitigation efforts are successfully introduced around the world following the Copenhagen meeting, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are bound to continue increasing for several decades ahead with increasingly severe climate impacts. Adaptation measures need to be started now, not in some vague middle term future. Similarly, action to prevent inappropriate developments and investments (avoiding ‘maladaptation’) should be starting sooner rather than later.

3.2.4.   The Committee therefore urges the Commission to give particular attention in its analytical work of the next three years to improving the methods of forecasting near term (1-5 years) impacts that may require the most urgent adaptive measures and action within that period. Which are the most vulnerable coast lines that require the most urgent protective measures? Where are water shortages likely to be most acute, and what responses can be made? What health impacts are imminent, and how can they best be prepared for?

3.2.5.   Similarly, the Commission should seek to identify urgently where there are the greatest risks of inappropriate investment being undertaken (‘maladaptation’) and how such mistakes can best be prevented. Continued developments in areas that are going to become more liable to serious flooding in the future is one example of this.

3.2.6.   The analytical and predictive capacities of the key institutions need to be developed urgently to the point at which they can give meaningful guidance to decision-takers on critical issues of this kind. In addition, CO2 concentrations need to be constantly recorded at various representative locations across the EU and the globe, and climate change, as well as the impact of the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content on the climate, monitored.

3.2.7.    - The White Paper proposes the establishment of two new cross-European pieces of machinery – an Impact and Adaptation Steering group to step up cooperation on adaptation, and a Clearing House Mechanism to serve as an IT tool and database on climate impacts and vulnerability and best practices on adaptation. Both proposals seem useful as far as they go, but in the Committee’s view they are unlikely by themselves to generate the kind of visibility and political momentum that is needed to get adaptive measures under way on the scale and pace that will be needed.

3.2.8.   The Committee therefore wishes to put forward again the recommendation it made in commenting on the Green Paper that the EU should establish and independent monitoring body with an independent Chairman of stature, charged with keeping under review the progress of the whole climate change strategy (both adaptation and mitigation). Such an independent body would report regularly and publicly on progress across Europe, and give early warnings if action appeared to be falling behind commitments or, in the case of adaptation, to be failing to prepare adequately for imminent impacts of climate change.

3.2.9.   Since the Committee first made this recommendation the independent climate committee established in the UK has made a number of challenging recommendations which have galvanised further action in that country, and successfully demonstrated the value of such a body. A similar body at European level could play a valuable role in maintaining pressure for action at that level.

3.2.10.    - In the context of the Copenhagen negotiations, Europe has an urgent need to establish what funds will need to be made available to support adaptation (and mitigation) efforts in the developing world, and what contribution Europe should make to this. In a separate communication, COM(2009) 475/3, the Commission has estimated that by 2020 developing countries will have financing requirements of the order of € 100 billion per annum for mitigation and adaptation expenditure; and it makes suggestions for how much of this might need to be met by contributions from public finance sources in Europe. The Committee welcomes these timely proposals and urges the institutions to give urgent consideration to them so that they can indeed help to achieve a successful outcome in Copenhagen.

3.2.11.   It is understandable in the context of Copenhagen, but disappointing nonetheless, in that there appears to be much less clarity so far about the potential costs of adaptation within Europe itself. The White Paper is disappointingly short of figures about the likely cost of adaptation in Europe and speaks merely of estimating the costs of policy adaptation measures in due course. The Committee suggests that it should be an urgent task to make an initial appraisal of the scale of resources that are likely to be needed in Europe. This overall assessment would then need to be divided into tranches – the highest priorities needing expenditure within the first five years, leaving less urgent spending to be taken up in later periods. The assessment would need to consider what expenditures could reasonably be left to the private sector, what part insurance could reasonably be expected to cover, and where public expenditures are likely to be needed. It would also be necessary to consider how the public spending effort might best be divided between national and European budgets.

3.2.12.   Of course such estimates are not easy. However, if they can be made for the developing world it must surely be possible to make them for Europe itself. In the Committee’s view this needs to be tackled with a greater sense of urgency and of the potential scale of the problems ahead than the White Paper implies. The world is moving into uncharted territory, and plans for precautionary and adaptive spending cannot be based on past experience or such old-fashioned benchmarks as providing protection sufficient to guard against every natural disaster except for the once in a hundred year event. In the future natural events that may in the past have only occurred once in a hundred years will happen much more frequently. Contingency planning criteria and guidelines and the precautionary expenditures that flow from them will have to be adjusted accordingly and built into relevant budgets.

3.2.13.   As the impacts of climate change become more severe in the years ahead, adaptive expenditures are bound to become larger and to become a larger element of public and private sector budgets, and to feature more prominently in insurance premiums and payments. All the studies to date indicate that for adaptation, as for mitigation, there are likely to be advantages in moving promptly to take appropriate measures rather than reacting too late after serious damage has occurred.

3.2.14.   If on the other hand action is taken in good time, and integrated effectively with other policy measures there should at least in some cases be the possibility of win-win measures that will improve the resilience of an area or a function to climate change impacts at the same time as advancing other policy objectives. It is urgent to begin the quest for these possible synergies as soon as possible, and to begin to get total figures for the costs of adaptation out into the open for discussion and refinement.

3.2.15.    - Climate change will affect many different sectors of the economy and many different businesses and individuals. It is important that there should be a wide understanding of these impacts, and that everyone should feel involved in the implementation of the changes that will be necessary to handle these impacts. At present, public engagement with the climate change issue tends to focus primarily on what individuals, groups and organisations can do to help the mitigation efforts by the decisions they make in their own lives and businesses.

3.2.16.   However, in parallel, it will soon be necessary for the wider public to address adaptation issues that may affect them such as:

where to live, work and take holidays in the light of changing climate patterns;

how the management of long-life trees and forests should cope with continuously changing climate conditions;

what plants and trees will thrive in gardens in changing circumstances and how traditional landscapes in all parts of the EU can be preserved;

how the distribution of health risks may change and what precautions to take;

how our food and diets may have to be altered.

It will be important to keep the general public and the most affected groups fully abreast of the latest analytical understanding of these types of climate change impacts as they emerge, and of the further changes that may lie ahead. At the same time, the public and particularly the most affected groups will need help to enable them to think through the kind of adaptive measures that lie within their own capacity. Europe could play a major part in stimulating this kind of public dialogue and spread of understanding. The Committee would urge the Commission to give further attention to this aspect.

Brussels, 5 November 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI

(1)  OJ C 120 of 16.5.2008, p. 38.