Europe's Future Depends on Cities Resilient to Climate Change

Most of Europe’s wealth is generated in cities, and urban areas are particularly at risk due to climate change. Europe should seize the opportunity of improving quality of life while adapting to climate change in cities, according to a report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). The report also warns that delaying adaptation will be much more costly in the long-term.

In Europe, temperature is increasing, precipitation is changing and sea level is rising. However, the effects will not be uniform across the continent, according to the EEA report, ‘Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe’.

The report is the first Europe-wide assessment of urban vulnerability to climate change. It argues that the distinct design and composition of urban areas compared to rural areas alters climate change impacts in cities, leading to many diverse challenges for cities within Europe. For example, a lot of artificial surfaces and little vegetation exacerbates heatwaves in cities . This so-called ‘urban heat island’ effect leads to much higher temperatures in cities than in the surrounding area.

“Most Europeans live in cities, which can be extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change,” points out EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade. “Many cities are now facing impacts such as water scarcity, flooding and heat waves, which are expected to become more frequent and intense than they are used to. Cities need to start investing in adaptation measures using ideas and best practice from around the world. The longer political leaders wait, the more expensive adaptation will become and the danger to citizens and the economy will increase.”

One example was the extreme rainfall that took place in Copenhagen in 2011. The city centre was flooded when over 150 mm of rain fell in during a two hour period on 2 July 2011. Insurance damages alone were estimated at Eur650–700 million. The frequency of such events is expected to increase in future due to climate change.

According to the report, roughly one fifth of European cities with over 100 000 inhabitants are very vulnerable to river floods. More than half of Europe’s cities have a low share of vegetated areas, which can strongly exacerbate heat waves. This is particularly relevant in cities where there is a high proportion of vulnerable people, such as the large proportion of elderly citizens in Italian, German and Northern Spanish cities.

Cities are heavily interconnected with other cities and regions in Europe. The report stresses that urban adaptation is therefore not only a local task but requires concerted action at all policy levels. The report draws attention to the important role of European and national policy in helping cities adapt to climate change by providing a supportive framework.

Such a framework includes a coherent and ‘climate-proof’ policy, a stronger territorial approach targeted at the specific challenges in different regions, a capable set of institutions and access to funding. Last but not least it calls for more knowledge to support a multi-level approach to urban adaptation.

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