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Q&A: Towards just resilience in climate adaptation in Europe: can we measure progress?

We delve into a newly released ETC CA paper, commissioned by the EEA and led by SEI’s Research Associate Frida Lager. This technical paper scrutinizes what is needed to track the progress of just resilience for Europe. Lager uses the context of urban areas to illustrate some of the findings.

Frida Lager, Ana Calvo / Published on 1 June 2023
just resilience

Sunset during a heat wave in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Photo: Alexander Spatari / Getty Images.

Can you describe the uneven exposure to climate risks in urban areas?

Urban areas are bustling microcosms of diversity, both in population and infrastructure, with different ethnicities and languages to consider. These areas can be rife with social and environmental risk factors like severe income inequality and poor air-quality, both of which can exacerbate the vulnerability of certain groups to climate change.

Adaptation measures unfortunately can sometimes increase burdens for some, while benefiting others, leading to issues such as gentrification. Coastal cities, for instance, invest in upgrading waterfront areas for protection against storms, floods and sea-level rise. However, these measures are costly and can drive low-income groups away due to high prices. Furthermore, affordable neighbourhoods often have fewer green spaces, which provide shade and cooling, and tend to have lower building standards, such as poor insulation, increasing the costs for heating and cooling. These factors can amplify the risk for those susceptible to heat or cooling shocks, such as children and the elderly in poorer neighbourhoods, particularly during heatwaves.

However, we can make significant strides by considering the distinct needs and situations of citizens and communities. Factors like affordability of housing and inclusion in adaptation planning of marginalized or underrepresented groups need to be taken into account.

Why might vulnerable groups not be reaping the benefits from climate change adaptation measures?

Justice in adaptation can be viewed from several different angles. It’s crucial to consider not just who benefits and who is left behind, but also whose values are taken into account, who is involved in the process and how they are represented. In urban areas, it is important to assess procedures that allow vulnerable and marginalized groups to participate in planning and identify barriers that hinder their involvement.

European cities, in many instances, are ahead of other sectors in considering justice in adaptation, such as finance, forestry, marine and fisheries, and transport. These sectors currently lack sufficient insights and data on justice-specific considerations of climate change adaptation.

What lessons can we learn from places like Barcelona and Berlin that have been dealing with structural inequalities and climate change adaptation?

In Barcelona, the city planned greener residential areas to moderate air conditions and prevent local flooding. However, these changes increased property values, pushing less affluent residents out of their neighbourhoods. Now, by trying to control housing prices while greening the city, the municipality is striving to tackle adaptation in a socially just manner.

Similarly, Berlin has begun to address justice in adaptation by developing a knowledge-base about the distribution of climate change consequences and environmental risks across neighbourhoods. Using maps, they illustrated how factors like noise, air pollution and social issues affect the quality of life in various districts.

Who should bear the responsibility for integrating justice aspects in local climate change adaptation?

The first step is to use existing data from agencies such as Eurostat, on aspects like gender, low-income groups, immigration rates, political participation and age. This data can help protect those most at risk and understand the differential exposure to climate change and social drivers of risk.

In the case of cities, we are seeing positive changes driven by community involvement and other participatory processes. Cities often have fairly autonomous governance systems, which allow them to operate  independently and innovatively in addressing local adaptation needs. The challenge lies in replicating this in other more dispersed sectors or areas, such as finance, or rural activities including farming and forestry.

What questions should the EU ask member states to better report justice aspects in climate change adaptation?

Focusing on justice and resilience requires us to concentrate on enabling societies to transform, absorb risks and dismantle structural barriers to progress. EU policies, such as financial measures, trade or agricultural initiatives, need to address justice in their adaptation efforts. At present, when we talk to representatives from countries trying to build and implement EU directives or strategies like “just resilience”, they often grapple with understanding the approaches and practices adopted by other countries, as well as what has proven effective or ineffective in the past.

There is a need for a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. Rather than the EU stipulating how to measure justice for each sector, country or specific circumstance, they could ask for information on how justice aspects are monitored in the adaptation planning in member countries, both quantitatively and qualitatively. This could facilitate cross-learning and initiatives at local and national levels.

What conclusions did you draw from examining the implications of just resilience in climate change adaptation?

The key is that structural and systems change are central to both justice and resilience. Indicators for measuring these transformations include elements like social cohesion, sense of community, trust in institutions and active citizen participation. As such, gauging progress towards a resilient society necessitates addressing structural drivers of injustice and inequities, such as wealth distribution. This underscores that adaptation is not solely a technical issue but is also political in nature. I anticipate that we will see more of this discussion in the years to come.

Featured authors

Frida Lager
Frida Lager

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

Richard J.T. Klein
Richard J. T. Klein

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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