Europe: Climate Change Impacts

views updated

Europe: Climate Change Impacts


Europe, inhabited by more than 700 million people, is the westernmost portion of the Eurasian continent but is traditionally treated as a continent due to its cultural distinctness. The 27 member states of the European Union include 60% of the population of Europe and most of its economic output (though only about 17% of its land area). These 27 states have established a European Climate Change Program to identify the most environmentally effective and affordable policies that can be enacted in Europe to cut the greenhouse-gas emissions that, most scientists agree, are causing the global climate to change.

Europe, like most other regions of the world, is already experiencing observable effects from climate change. These include shifting rainfall patterns, shifting ranges of wild animal and plant species, impacts on agriculture, rising sea levels, and increased heat waves.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Europe has been inhabited by human beings or closely related species for hundreds of thousands of years. The Industrial Revolution that made anthropogenic (human-caused)

climate change possible began in Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century and has since spread to most of the world. Today, Europe remains both an industrial and agricultural area, responsible for about 21% of global meat production and 20% of global cereal grain production. It is the world's most densely populated continent (about 156 persons per square mile, or 60 per square kilometer). Due to its wealth and technological sophistication, it is comparatively well-equipped to adapt to changes in climate, and is implementing an array of policies designed to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions by reducing fuel consumption.

There is no doubt that Europe has grown warmer: there has been a well-established warming trend in Europe for over a century, namely about 1.6°F (.9°C) per decade averaged over the period 1901 to 2005. Moreover, this trend has accelerated, being about .74°F (.41°C) per decade from 1979 to 2005. Daily temperature variability has increased due to a rise in the number of warm extremes (for example, heat waves and exceptionally warm days).

In 2007, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the report of its Working Group II, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. The report noted the following points, among others, about the impacts of climate change on Europe:

  • Impacts of climate change are already being seen in Europe. These include the retreat of glaciers, decreased permafrost area, lengthening of the growing season, shifts of species ranges, the heat wave of 2003, and more. These changes are consistent with past projections of impacts of climate change: that is, scientists successfully predicted that these climate changes would occur (although the exact timing of individual weather events such as the 2003 heat wave cannot be predicted, and scientists have not attempted to do so).
  • Climate-related hazards will increase in Europe in the twenty-first century. These include floods, coastal flooding from increased storminess and higher sea levels, more frequent and prolonged droughts, higher wildfire risk (including catastrophic fires on peatlands in central Europe), rock avalanches in the mountains, and more. Health risks from heat, flooding, and some infectious diseases may increase unless adaptive measures are successful. Some impacts, the IPCC notes, may be positive, including decreased risk from extreme cold; however, the overall health risks are expected to increase.
  • Europe's natural ecosystems will be affected, and most organisms and ecosystems will have difficulty adapting to climate change. Inland migration of beaches from rising sea levels will destroy up to 20% of coastal wetlands, which will stress the species that rely on those ecosystems. Many areas of Arctic permafrost are likely to disappear. Forests will expand northward; tundra area will decrease. Populations in North Atlantic fisheries are likely to increase. Under some possible scenarios for future emissions of greenhouse gases, up to 60% of alpine (high-mountain environment) plant species may become extinct.

Impacts and Issues

The 27 member states of the European Union (EU) have committed to a wide range of policies to decrease their contribution to the greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing most climate change. For example, all members of the EU are signatories of the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty committing its member states to the timely stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Building on the provisions of Kyoto, the EU has instituted its Emissions Trading Scheme, which now governs carbon dioxide emissions from about 11,500 large emitters of carbon dioxide in manufacturing and power generation.

Some critics have objected that the European emissions trading scheme is ineffective or inadequate. Market-oriented critics object that the scheme is less effective than emissions taxes, or constitutes unwarranted government interference in the market. Environmentally minded critics object that it allows excessively high caps on emissions and treats life-threatening sources of pollution as a tradable commodity, with severe impacts on some local communities. Other experts defend the system as workable.


ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by people or resulting from human activities. Usually used in the context of emissions that are produced as a result of human activities.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The period, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, during which humans began to use steam engines as a major source of power.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

PEATLAND: An area where peat is forming or has formed. Peat is a dense, moist substance formed of compacted ground-cover plants, mainly moss and grasses. Over geologic time, peat can turn into coal.

PERMAFROST: Perennially frozen ground that occurs wherever the temperature remains below 32°F(0°C) for several years.

TUNDRA: A type of ecosystem dominated by lichens, mosses, grasses, and woody plants. It is found at high latitudes (arctic tundra) and high altitudes (alpine tundra). Arctic tundra is underlain by permafrost and usually very wet.

WETLANDS: Areas that are wet or covered with water for at least part of the year.

The Kyoto Protocol's targets expire in 2012. The EU officially favors an early start to negotiations on a post-Kyoto international climate treaty. Such a regime, the EU says, should see participation by “all major emitters.” This is likely a reference to the United States, the world's all-time largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which is not a participant in the Kyoto process, and to China, which is unconstrained by Kyoto and probably now the world's largest annual emitter. The EU also hopes to see innovations in emissions-saving technologies and the pursuit of strategies to adapt to future global warming.

See Also Africa: Climate Change Impacts; Arctic People: Climate Change Impacts; Asia: Climate Change Impacts; Australia: Climate Change Impacts; North America: Climate Change Impacts; Small Islands: Climate Change Impacts; South America: Climate Change Impacts.



Parry, M. L., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Web Sites

“Impacts of Europe's Changing Climate.” EEA Report No. 2. European Environment Agency. 2004. <> (accessed September 16, 2007).

Larry Gilman

About this article

Europe: Climate Change Impacts

Updated About content Print Article