Europe’s Cities Must Step Up Adaptation Efforts, Says EEA

A recent report released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) at the third Open European Day at the Resilient Cities Conference in Bonn, Germany, on 5 July 2016, “Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe 2016: Transforming cities in a changing climate” stresses the benefits to European cities of investing in long-term measures to improve their resilience to climate change. It provides an overview of options for addressing climate change in Europe, examines what progress has been achieved in recent years, and looks at what actions can be taken in the future to improve urban adaptation.

“Cities are dealing with some of the biggest drivers of unsustainable development and face enormous challenges that are increasingly difficult to manage,” said Gino Van Begin, secretary general of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, at the start of the conference organised by ICLEI and attended by urban experts, campaigners and politicians from more than 40 countries. “It is clear that we need sustainable cities because they ultimately protect and enhance daily life for all residents,” he said.

Urbanization rates in Europe are projected to increase from 73% presently to over 80% by 2050. During this period European cities will face complex environmental, economic and social challenges, one of the over-arching ones being the effects of climate change, which include an increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves, floods and droughts.

Vehicle trapped in flood water in Wallington, London, 07 June 2016. Photo: London Fire Brigade
Vehicle trapped in flood water in Wallington, London, 07 June 2016. Photo: London Fire Brigade

Options for Responding to Flood Risk

The report categorizes responses to climate change, and especially flood risk, into three broad options; ‘coping’, a reactive approach where each flood is dealt with when it occurs, ‘incremental’, that consists of raising flood defences progressively to meet the challenge of anticipated flood levels, and ‘transformative’, that uses a systemic approach to attempt to address the root causes of flooding and to integrate adaptation with other aspects of urban development, and which “turns the challenge into an opportunity, capitalising on many additional non-climatic benefits.”

In the case of many cities, there may be an overlap of categories, but the main characteristic of a transformative approach is that it “uses behaviour and technology to change the biophysical, social and economic components of a system fundamentally but not necessarily irreversibly”, and may include shifting certain activities to new, safer, locations. An example is the ‘Room for the River’ project  which involves a wide range of measures, including shifting of dykes and the relocation of a bridge. Transformational adaptation seeks to avoid ‘lock-ins’ where large amounts of resources are invested in a single strategy option, rather investing in long term flexible adaptation options that can be modified if climate change effects become more drastic and if socio-economic and technological conditions change, for example, promoting the development of ‘amphibious’ buildings rather than fixed elevated structures.

Seine River floods in Paris, June 2016. Photo credit; Under CC BY-SA 2.0
Seine River floods in Paris, June 2016. Photo credit; Under CC BY-SA 2.0

A transformational approach therefore requires the most time, capacity and resources in its establishment phase, and the socio-economic and political conditions of many cities may not support this type of approach. Nevertheless, the report suggests, it “will be a good idea to prepare the ground and gradually increase transformational adaptation”.

The point is made that, while planning and implementing urban adaptation take place mainly at local or regional scale, addressing climate impacts at the appropriate scale often requires collaboration at a regional or even international level. The example is given of Dresden in Germany, which needs to cooperate with regions further up the River Elbe in the Czech Republic in order to adequately address its flooding problem.
The report argues that, since climate change is a systemic challenge, it needs systemic and integrated solutions, and an integrated, transformative approach can enable cities to establish multiple links between climate and non-climate policies, allowing the use of a wider range of capacities and financial means more effectively.

Floods Genoa
Cars floating along the flooded streets of Genoa in 2011. Photo: Oggi Scienza / Flickr

Progress in Europe

Since the EU Adaptation Strategy was launched in 2013, about 150 cities have committed to take climate adaptation action by signing up to the Mayors Adapt initiative, with cities such as Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Barcelona and Helsinki leading the way. This initiative now forms part of the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy Initiative, which has more than 6,700 signatories and extends outside the EU.
Capacities vary across the spectrum with an EEA 2012 report grouping adaptive capacity into three dimensions; awareness, ability and action. However the current report notes that Europe-wide data on adaptive capacity are scarce, and it also highlights a lack of clear understanding amongst many role-players regarding the distinction between the concepts of adaptation and mitigation.

Lessons Learned and Future Action Areas

The report then provides a spotlight on selected areas of action in the adaptation process that are considered important for implementing effective adaptation and transforming cities into well-adapted cities that have used adaptation as an opportunity. These are governance, knowledge and awareness, planning, economics, and monitoring, reporting and evaluation (MRE).

Good governance for urban adaptation recognizes that urban adaptation to climate change crosses sectors and levels of government, and that it is vital that different departments and levels of government work actively in a co-ordinated manner.

Awareness of the need for adaptation has grown in recent years, but some smaller cities often lack the capacity or resources to access the knowledge base and select the most appropriate tools already available – they may need to obtain outside assistance in translating scientific results into useful information for planning adaptation in local contexts. The report mentions a number of on-line knowledge resources including the EC’s European Climate Adaptation Platform, Climate-ADAPT, the EU-financed Reconciling Adaptation, Mitigation and Sustainable Development for Cities (RAMSES) project, Bottom-up Climate Adaptation Strategies towards a Sustainable Europe (BASE), Climate Resilient Cities and Infrastructure (RESIN), as well as a number of national online initiatives, and those run by NGO’s such as E3G and LIFE-ACT.

According to the report, systematic and integrated adaptation planning with a long-term perspective is still relatively rare among European cities, with many cities considering that an effective way to implement adaptation measures is to integrate them with mitigation and activities in other policy areas, rather than developing strategic adaptation plans enabling systemic and appropriate integration. Only a few leading cities are reported to have started transformational adaptation, embracing change as an opportunity to increase overall sustainability.

The economics of urban adaptation imply that making an economic case for adaptation can improve decision-making and reduce the risk of over-expenditure. The report states that few cities as yet include adaptation as a standard item in municipal budgets or have developed new, innovative funding mechanisms for it. There is also concern that sound economics is often not widely included as a decision-making criterion, whereas other criteria such as short-term benefits, available funding and easy implementation; the ‘low-hanging fruit’ bear more weight.

Monitoring, reporting and evaluation (MRE) is a systematic approach to providing feedback on the effectiveness of actions taken, in order to guide future actions. The report finds that most cities have little capacity to set up MRE, being short of technical, human and financial resources, and so seldom apply adaptation indicators. Those that have will be in a position to provide valuable experience for followers in better understanding the effectiveness of adaptation strategies.

The report concludes with stakeholders perspectives on climate change adaptation, highlighting some of their suggestions on how to promote necessary actions. These include local, regional, national and international perspectives.

Since it is such a wide-ranging document for use by stakeholders at a variety of levels of government and civil society, the report contains a reader’s guide explaining how it relates to other guidance tools such as the Urban Adaptation Support Tool, Climate-ADAPT and the 2012 EEA Report. The report contains numerous case studies in easy-to-read box format which help in clarifying concepts and supporting statements, and there is a glossary of terms at the end of the document.

The full report can be found here.