Policy for a climate-resilient Europe

On 22 June 2021, the 5th European Climate Change Adaptation Conference (ECCA 2021), drew to a close with a high-level panel discussing inspiring action for a climate-resilient Europe. With the launch of the new EU Adaptation Strategy earlier this year, it is clear that the European Commission now recognises that it is only by strengthening climate resilience globally that it can hope to achieve climate resilience regionally – but what are the steps it must now take?

COVID-19 has revealed the speed and severity with which impacts can propagate throughout our globalised economy. What starts as an impact in one part of the world can spark a chain reaction – or even destabilise an entire global system – so that the effects are felt thousands of miles away.

Thailand floods

Thailand floods. Photo: sushi 7688 / iStock / Getty Images .

Climate change, therefore, presents a ‘systemic risk’. In 2011, Thailand experienced 5 months of catastrophic flooding – 13.6 million people were impacted and over 800 lost their lives. But the effects also spilled over beyond its borders . The inundation of industrial parks generated substantial losses within the automobile and electronic industries (particularly for Japanese companies) while the loss of farmland – alongside the impact of pre-planned pricing measures – saw global rice prices soar by 17% . A study by Promchote et al. finds ‘increasing odds for potential flooding of similar intensity’.

“As this example shows, the consequences of cross-border, cascading climate risks can affect us all – but it will be the poorest and most vulnerable, who have the least buffer to absorb the impacts, that stand to bear the brunt.”

— Katy Harris and Richard Klein, SEI

In 2007–08 in Senegal, prices of rice – the most popular staple food in the country – tripled following a chain reaction that began when India halted its exports of rice, partly due to poor harvest forecasts as a result of adverse weather conditions. This led to political instability and rioting on the streets of Dakar.

So, as the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change notes, ‘even local climate impacts have regional or global repercussions’. These sorts of connections – between Asian rice and African riots for instance – are still poorly understood, a problem the CASCADES project aims to address (see this recently released conceptual framework for example).

Current approaches to adaptation planning, which are built on national risk assessments and are defined and developed in relative isolation from one another, fall far short of what is needed to effectively manage climate risk in an interconnected world. It is time to equip local adaptation planners with the global outlook they need.

There is much to celebrate in the EU’s new Adaptation Strategy. It clearly takes on board the findings of its 2018 evaluation, which recognised ‘the potential implications for the EU of transboundary effects of climate impacts in third countries as an area meriting examination, and the wording of the Paris Agreement which recognises that ‘adaptation is a global challenge ‘. Specifically, we welcome the value it denotes to ‘3 Cs’ in approaches to adaptation:

  • Candour – there are repeated references in the strategy to the importance of collecting and sharing information and data in open, accessible and harmonised formats to ‘avoid climate-blind decisions’
  • Cooperation – the strategy notes the importance of stimulating cooperation and dialogue on adaptation between different types of stakeholders and across borders, both within and beyond the Union (in particular with partner countries)
  • Coherence – the European Climate Law, Better Regulation Guidelines and Toolbox and the overarching European Green Deal will aid climate-risk management policy coherence, which the strategy notes as critically important if adaptation is not to be inadvertently undermined

Other regions, countries and non-state actors would do well to pay attention to these ‘3Cs’ in their own adaptation strategies.

But can the EU add a fourth? Can it demonstrate commitment to these principles, particularly as it aims to step up international action for climate resilience? To do so, it must take a series of steps to better identify and manage cross-border and cascading climate risks:

  • Candour: The European Union and its Member States could show commitment to this principle by encouraging openness and transparency in disclosing (once known) the cross-border climate risks they are exposed to and also in taking the initiative to build coordinated mechanisms for the sharing and analysis of national adaptation plans; the EU’s Adaptation Strategy already notes the importance of ‘achieving resilience in a just and fair way’ and as one country’s adaptation efforts could all too easily undermine another’s – redistributing risk rather than reducing it outright – we must inspire much greater information-sharing between countries to avoid the adverse effects of maladaptation.
  • Collaboration: The European Union and its Member States could show commitment to this principle by instigating a number of new dialogues on adaptation and investing in adaptation to shared climate risks: recognising that many cross-border risks can only be addressed by a corresponding cross-border response, we need political engagement and approaches to adaptation that are based on complementarity, that identify our independencies and build on areas of common ground with partners internationally (both public and private) – recognising the co-benefits or even global public goods that can be harnessed from working together.
  • Coherence: The European Union and its Member States could show commitment to this principle by ensuring the Commission as a whole ‘sign on to this idea ‘ of just resilience: the actors who can manage cascading climate risks go far beyond those with a traditional mandate for adaptation – they extend across policy domains (from trade to foreign policy) and governance levels (from the local to the global); to assure policy coherence in governing cascading climate risk, the Directorate-General for Climate Action will need to go further than ever before in inspiring a truly collective effort and in identifying and allocating ‘risk ownership ‘ – who is best placed to manage such risks?

Cross-border and cascading risks will become a defining issue for climate diplomacy in the years ahead and they show the need for all countries, regions and organisations to step up international efforts to achieve a climate-resilient future. As the EU Adaptation Strategy acknowledges, ‘this makes international climate resilience not only a matter of solidarity but also of open strategic autonomy and self-interest’.

Whether the EU can rise to the challenge, and match the ambition of its strategy with the corresponding level of action in its implementation, will depend on the degree to which it commits to building resilience to climate change on a truly global and transformative scale. As ECCA 2021 draws to a close, the high-level panel would do well to remember ‘global is the new local’.

This blog post was originally published by CASCADES, a project on climate change resilience, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No. 821010.

About CASCADES

SEI is one of 12 partners in the CASCADES consortium. CASCADES identifies how the risks of climate change to countries, economies and peoples beyond Europe might cascade into Europe. It does so by analysing how these risks interact with major challenges facing European societies. We are working with a diverse range of stakeholders – both within and outside Europe – to support the design of a coherent European policy framework to address these risks.