Editorial of November 2021

By Rafael Leite Pinto (Master in EU Law – University of Minho)

The regional impacts of climate change in the European Union – a cohesion perspective

Although concern about climate change is typically a higher priority in western countries, especially in Europe, the understanding of its regional impacts is not widespread. The prevailing line of thinking is that developing countries will be the most affected and Europe will experience minor changes. While it is clear that developing countries will be affected the most, the lack of knowledge about local impacts can lead many citizens and politicians to delay taking concrete action. In this article, based on the new IPCC report and the new visual tools provided, we summarize the impacts of climate change in Europe, on rising temperatures, sea level, precipitation, and the incidence of extreme events with an overarching view on the internal cohesion policy for climate change to guarantee a fair and just transition, within the European Union.

1. The IPCC report

The new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[1] made headlines as being the most frightening and alarming ever. In fact, nothing should concern us more than a report based on more than 14,000 high-quality studies, which clearly states that “each of the last four decades has been successively warmer[2]” and that human action is to blame.

Worse than this is realizing that the speed at which climate change occurs is increasing. Since 1850 we have already increased the Earth’s average temperature by 1,1°C, but most of this increase took place in the last 50 years. Since 1900 we have already raised the average level of sea water by 25cm, the vast majority of which took place in the last 50 years. Since 2006, this increase has been measured in a staggering 3.7 mm per year.

In the report we find worrying statements such as: “climate change is already affecting every inhabited region across the globe with human influence contributing to many observed changes in weather and climate extremes”. In fact, we may have already increased the frequency of extreme events: extreme hot temperatures that used to happen once very ten years are now occurring almost three times a decade; extreme hot temperatures that used to happen once every fifty years now occur almost five times more. It is predicted that this frequency will double if we cross global warming of 2ºC[3].

The problem is IPCC scientists also state that: “many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level[4] and “global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades[5], which seems unlikely according to current trends[6]. This means that even in the best case scenarios for emissions, it is questionable if temperatures will not still exceed a warming of 2ºC, even if only temporarily.

Focusing on Europe, it is clear that climate change has increased the frequency of hot extremes in the entire continent, heavy precipitation in central and northern countries, and drought risk in central and southern countries[7].

Using the new “Interactive Atlas[8]” that allows us to search multiple datasets in past and future scenarios, we learn that since 1961, southern Europe median temperatures may have increased 0,9ºC; in central Europe 1,1ºC; and in northern Europe 1,4ºC.

As usual the IPCC analyzes the effects of different future emission scenarios on the planet. The report includes scenarios with high and very high Greenhouse Gas (GHG)  emissions (SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5) and CO2 emissions that roughly double from current levels by 2100 and 2050, respectively; scenarios with intermediate GHG emissions (SSP2-4.5) and CO2 emissions remaining around current levels until the middle of the century; and scenarios with very low and low GHG emissions and CO2 emissions declining to net zero around or after 2050, followed by varying levels of net negative CO2 emissions (SSP1-1.9 and SSP1-2.6).

In this article we are going to focus on the impacts of different emission scenarios in Europe using the Interactive Atlas, that allows us to navigate the regional effects in southern, central, and northern Europe. Furthermore, we will analyze the results with a territorial cohesion perspective considering the current policies designed to assure a just climate transition.

2. The IPCC predictions

All scenarios are compared to a 1995-2014 baseline to illustrate how rapid changes will happen in our lifetime.

a) SSP1 2.6

Starting with the optimist, but unlikely scenario 2.6 where we achieve the net zero emissions by 2050 and negative emission further on (EU goals).

 Medium Term 2041-2060Long Term 2081-2100
Southern EuropeMedian temperatures increases 1,2ºCMedian precipitation decreases 3,5%Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperatures increases 1,3ºCMedian precipitation decreases 3,8%Median sea level rises 40cm
Central EuropeMedian temperature increases of 1,4ºCMedian precipitation increases 2%Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases of 1,5ºCMedian precipitation increases 3%Median sea level rises 40cm
Northern EuropeMedian temperature increases 1,1ºCMedian precipitation increases 2,8%Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases 1,3ºCMedian precipitation increases 2,9%Median sea level rises 30cm

b) SSP2 4.5

In this, more likely scenario, emissions remain around current levels until the middle of the century.

 Medium Term 2041-2060Long Term 2081-2100
Southern EuropeMedian temperatures increases 1,5ºC Median precipitation decreases 5,5% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperatures increases 2,4ºC Median precipitation decreases 8% Median sea level rises 50cm
Central EuropeMedian temperature increases of 1,7ºC Median precipitation increases 1,1% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases of 2,6ºC Median precipitation increases 2% Median sea level rises 50cm
Northern EuropeMedian temperature increases 1,5ºC Median precipitation increases 3,3% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases 2,4ºC Median precipitation increases 4,9% Median sea level rises 40cm

c) SSP3 7

In this scenario CO2 emissions double by 2100.

 Medium Term 2041-2060Long Term 2081-2100
Southern EuropeMedian temperatures increases 1,7ºC Median precipitation decreases 7,1% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperatures increases 3,5ºC Median precipitation decreases 15% Median sea level rises 60cm
Central EuropeMedian temperature increases of 1,9ºC Median precipitation increases 1,6% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases of 3,9ºC Median precipitation increases 1,2% Median sea level rises 60cm
Northern EuropeMedian temperature increases 1,5ºC Median precipitation increases 3,8% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases 2,4ºC Median precipitation increases 8% Median sea level rises 40cm

d) SSP4 8.5

In this scenario, CO2 emissions double by 2050.

 Medium Term 2041-2060Long Term 2081-2100
Southern EuropeMedian temperatures increases 2ºC Median precipitation decreases 8,5% Median sea level rises 30cmMedian temperatures increases 4,6ºC Median precipitation decreases 19% Median sea level rises 70cm
Central EuropeMedian temperature increases of 2,3ºC Median precipitation increases 1,4% Median sea level rises 30cmMedian temperature increases of 5,1ºC Median precipitation increases 0,9% Median sea level rises 70cm
Northern EuropeMedian temperature increases 2ºC Median precipitation increases 4,6% Median sea level rises 20cmMedian temperature increases 4,4ºC Median precipitation increases 10% Median sea level rises 50cm

From this data we can draw several conclusions. First, even in the best case scenario, drastic changes will occur, especially in sea level rise. Second, regional effects vary, and southern European countries will be the most affected, especially when it comes to hot extremes and droughts. Third, since the best case scenario still has a significant impact, designing and implementing adaptation/mitigation plans to climate change is an urgent need. Last, but not least, at the current pace, we will not achieve the Paris Climate Goals.

3. Overview of current climate pathways

With the EU Green Deal and “Fit for 55” program, the goals and policies seem more ambitious than before, setting the target of a 55% emissions reduction in 2030, compared to 1990. However, according to Climate Tracker: “While the proposals presented by the European Commission in July 2021 would result in emissions reductions of around 54% below 1990 levels, policies implemented to date would only result in emissions reductions between 36 and 47%[9] and “Domestic emissions reductions of between 58% and 70% are needed to make the EU’s effort compatible with the Paris Agreement[10], meaning that even in the EU, policies aren’t bold enough and able to keep temperature rise below 1,5ºC. Although they might be enough to keep temperature increases below 2ºC, depending on implementation, which usually lags behind goals. The EU’s Parliament goal of reducing emissions by 60% until 2030 is more in line with the Paris Agreement.

According to Greenpeace, the Fit for 55 plan is still not enough and sets us up for failure when it comes to climate goals[11]. The European Environmental Bureau (EBB) published a report analyzing the measures, claiming that it heads in the right direction but is still not fit for climate change and a fair transition[12]. According to the EBB, the program doesn’t set a clear phase-out of fossil fuels, lacks clear targets per industry, ignores the impacts of agriculture, needs to go further on mandatory targets for Member States and on the climate social fund to assure a just transition.

Despite more ambitious, the goals don’t go far enough and even so, the expectation, before setting de 55% reduction target, was to only achieve a 36% emissions reduction by 2030[13]. This is still the state of the art as some Member States need to update their plans to match the new goals/regulations and new calculations need to be made.

Between 1990 and 2019 the EU-27 emissions dropped by 24%[14]. That’s an average of a little over 1% per year. This means that, in order to achieve the new 2030 goals, emissions will have to be cut by another 31% in the next decade, or over 3% a year. This level of reduction is unprecedented over a long period of time, although between 2018-2019, emissions dropped around 4%, the steepest annual reduction seen in the last decade. In 2020, because of the covid-19 pandemic, emissions dropped 13%, but are expected to rise above previous levels during the economic recovery[15].

There are reasons to be skeptical about the new goals because historically the EU hasn’t been able to meet most environmental targets. According to the 2018 Environmental Indicator Report, the EU was on track to fail most 2020 goals, except the emissions and renewable energy ones[16] which ended up achieving. Targets related to biodiversity and nature conservation are mostly unmet. Still, the fact that we were able to achieve the goal of reducing emissions by 20% in 2020 may be a good omen for the Fit for 55 plan, especially considering that under the European Climate Law, these targets are now binding, for the first time. Although, it remains unclear what the legal consequences will be if the EU doesn’t abide as a whole.

Knowing that the new 2030 goals are still not enough in order to keep temperature increases below 1,5ºC, the scenario is even more daunting when we realize that worldwide, emissions haven’t peaked yet[17]. According to the IPCC report, emissions must peak by 2025, however, at the current pace, that’s only expected to happen by 2050 and if the new pledges and targets are achieved, somewhere in the 2030’s[18].

Existing global policies are projected to increase temperatures by 2,7-3,1ºC[19], so unless most countries adopt even bolder policies than the EU, we need to brace for impact. That meaning, start investing and planning for adaptation as well as improving our policies and goals. These will be the subjects of the next IPCC reports schedule to be released in February 2022 on the impacts of climate change, adapting to them and how vulnerable different parts of the world are, and in March 2022 on options for mitigating the climate crisis.

4. Climate justice within the EU

We already knew that on a global level, developing countries that haven’t contributed much to CO2 emissions would be the first and most affected by climate change giving rise to social justice concerns. In fact, on a global level, despite the EU having the most forthright environmental goals and policies, from a just transition perspective, there is no reason to be satisfied, as historically European countries have been some of the biggest CO2 emitters. According to the data, the EU-28 is historically responsible for 22% of the world’s CO2 emissions, behind the USA that is responsible for 25% and ahead of China responsible for 12,7%[20]. Currently, the EU is still the third largest emitter after the US and China. Another important way of looking at the data is emissions per capita. Most Europeans, and developed countries emit more than their fair share[21]. While China produces 6,4 metric tons of CO2 per capita, Germany produces 10,4, the US 17,6 and Saudi Arabia 17,6[22]. In the EU, from 2000 to 2020, per capita emissions dropped only from 10,6 to 8,4 metric tons[23]. This means that we also have to play a decisive role on the international stage to help further a worldwide fair transition.

However, this new regional data from the IPCC should also help accelerate the discussion about internal cohesion policy during the climate transition to insure all Member States are able to become climate neutral while guaranteeing jobs, decent wages, and human rights.

As the data shows, southern Member States will be the most affect by climate change with temperature increases, severe droughts, and wildfire risks as well as sea level rise. At the same time, eastern countries that rely on more polluting industries and energy production methods, such as coal and natural gas, are at higher risk of severe economic crisis if the transition isn’t supported. Both southern and eastern countries typically have lower income levels adding to social transition problems.

According to a Joint Research Center ongoing monitoring program, PESETA[24], welfare losses due to climate change are expected to be very significant in the EU. The scale of such losses depends on the capacity to keep global warming under control. Exposing the present economy to a global warming of 3°C would result in an additional annual welfare loss of at least 175 €billion (1.38% of GDP). Under a 2°C scenario the additional welfare loss would be lower, 83 €billion/year (0.65% of GDP), while restricting warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, would reduce the additional welfare loss to 42 €billion/year (0.33% of GDP). Among the impacts of global warming highlighted by PESETA, human mortality from extreme heat dominates the scene and there is a clear north-south divide in the regional distribution of additional welfare losses. The sum of impacts in northern regions are relatively small or even positive as these regions experience some productivity gains from climate change. In southern EU regions, the impacts are mostly negative. As a result, aggregated welfare losses in southern regions are several times larger compared to those in the north of Europe.

More PESETA findings conclude that a 3ºC temperature increase would result in catastrophic events for southern Europe, with human exposure to severe heatwaves multiplied around 40 to 50 times, water availability would nearly drop to half and while electricity production by hydropower would increase in the north, it would reduce in the south. The agriculture sector would also be affected disproportionally in the south with crop yield falling by 10% on average.

4.1 The Cohesion Fund

Climate action objectives were integrated into the 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy with approximately 56 billion allocated, representing almost 16% of the total Cohesion Fund.

So far, interventions on transport absorbed the largest share of Cohesion Funds for climate action in 2014-2020, around 27%;  energy efficiency of infrastructures have gathered 24,7% of total; measures for adapting to climate risks and environmental management around 10% each; nearly 9% of the total went to renewable energy; 7,4% to business support relevant for climate; 4,4% to energy systems; 3,7% to research and innovation oriented towards climate change and 2,1% to human capital development relevant to climate action[25]. From these values we can conclude that more investment on job transition and human capital is needed, especially on renewable energy, technology and circular economy that will provide long-term jobs.

However, this doesn’t appear to be the biggest problem of the Cohesion Fund when it comes to climate change. The results from the 2014-2020 program seem disappointing. According to a 2021 report[26] climate progress has been “slow”, and the system of output and result indicators also needs improvement. For example, the annual GHG reduction from selected projects is 66% of the target, while the value from fully implemented projects is only 6,3% of the target. The contribution of Cohesion Policy to additional capacity for renewable energy production is modest while the contribution to energy efficiency is uncertain. More positive is the impact of Cohesion Policy in relation to adaptation to extreme weather events. For example, 64% of the target population (16.5 million) was protected from forest fires and 24% from floods. A relevant problem of 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy is that it provides support to fossil fuels, natural gas and may also support unsustainable uses of biomass, while there is low spending on clean energy infrastructure.

The report also states that 42,3% of the funds for climate action were planned to be used in less developed regions, 13,3% in more developed regions and 10,8% in transition regions. However, there’s a significant difference between the total budget and the amounts actually spent by Member States. For Atlantic regions the total budget was 3,3 billion euros, but only 27%, 1,1 billion euros were spent. For Continental regions, including central and eastern Europe, the total budget was 32,2 billion euros and only 39%, 11,6 billion euros were spent. For the Mediterranean region the budget was 11,2 billion euros, but only 23%, 3,5 billion euros were spent. For Boreal Artic regions, the budget was 2,2 billion euros, but only 37%, 1,2 billion euros were spent[27].

The reasons for the low execution are the excess administrative burden and to a lesser degree, the covid-19 pandemic that affected the last year of the program[28]. However, we can´t ignore the role played by the lack of awareness, political will, and knowledge from Member States governments on environmental matters.

In 2021-2027, the amount planned for climate change is expected to increase to at least EUR 77.2 billion (or 83.7 billion, if REACT-EU, a component of Next Generation is considered). This is roughly 25% of total Cohesion Policy.

4.2 The Just Transition Mechanism

The Just Transition Mechanism (JTM) is a new tool designed to ensure that the transition towards a climate-neutral economy happens in a fair way. It provides targeted support to help mobilize at least €65-75 billion over the period 2021-2027 in the most affected regions, to alleviate the socio-economic impact of the transition[29].

The flagship program of the JTM is the Just Transition Fund (JTF), specifically aimed at those regions that have been most strongly affected by the transition towards climate neutrality, due to their dependence on fossil fuels or greenhouse gas-intensive industrial processes. It has an overall budget of 17,5 billion euros for 2021-2027 and the level of EU co-financing of projects is set according to the category of region in which these projects are located. For less developed regions, it is set at maximum 85%, for transition regions 70% and for more developed regions 50%[30]. The fund supports a wide range of investments, for instance, in activities on the deployment of clean technologies, GHG emission reduction, renewable energy, decarbonization of local transport, improvement of the energy efficiency of district heating networks, regeneration of brownfield sites, the circular economy, and the upskilling of workers[31].

The other two funding sources under the JTM are InvestEU, expected to mobilize 10-15 billion euros, mostly in the private sector and a new public sector loan facility from the EU budget and European Investment Bank, estimated to loan 25-30 billion euros.

Even though the programs hasn’t started yet, criticism has already been raised, focusing on limited budget, goal dispersion with more investment need in job transition, and the regional allocation of funds that might not always reflect Member States problems and climate ambitions, especially in southern states[32].

Another common critique is the fact that the JTM mechanism focus mostly on energy production jobs, but industries that contribute to global warming are not limited to the energy sector, with agriculture, trade, transportation being left out of the program as of now[33].

5. Conclusion

The new IPCC outlined worrying scenarios, stating that even if we register a significant emission reductions, climate impacts will still occur, strengthening the need for mitigation and adaptation policies. At the same time, current global strategies are far from being sufficient to keep temperature rise below 1,5ºC or even 2ºC and that’s not expected to improve with emissions probably peaking somewhere in the 2030’s. In the EU, although more ambitious, policies and targets still lag behind the Paris targets that need at least a 60% emissions reduction by 2030. The EU also needs a stronger stance in international relations to increase the ambition of other big emitters and prevent developing countries from following the same environmental mistakes.

Besides improving climate targets and policies, significant investment need to be made on adaptation and mitigation measures to adjust for all scenarios and avert the worst impacts. This plans need to be designed with a holistic view, in all sector of society and rely on multilevel governance schemes to be better adjusted for local problems.

For both adaptation and transition, more attention and investment are necessary to guarantee social and territorial cohesion. If fully executed, the Cohesion Policy funds for climate and the JMT funds will represent a 158 billion euros investment into just climate transition until 2027. However, considering the track record of environmental action and poor use of climate funds, policy ambition, implementation and budget allocation at the Member States level needs to improve, which may happen for the first time, because of the binding targets of the European Climate Law. At the same time, the funds need to be spent considering new, long-term job creation, education, job transition and skill learning. As of now, it is also uncertain that the budget, if even well invested, will be enough to assure a just transition, since the PESETA findings conclude that just the yearly welfare loss caused by climate change can surpass these investments in climate transition.

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/ accessed 11/09/2021

[2] IPCC AR6 WGI, Summary for Policy Makers, p.5.

[3] IPCC AR6 WGI, Summary for Policy Makers, p.23.

[4] IPCC AR6 WGI, Summary for Policy Makers, p.28.

[5] IPCC AR6 WGI, Summary for Policy Makers, p.17.

[6] https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions?country= accessed 11/09/2021

[7] IPCC AR6 WGI, Summary for Policy Makers, p.12.

[8] https://interactive-atlas.ipcc.ch/regional-information#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  accessed 11/09/2021

[9] https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/eu/policies-action/ accessed 12/10/2021

[10] https://climateactiontracker.org/climate-target-update-tracker/eu/ accessed 12/10/2021

[11] https://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/issues/climate-energy/45795/eu-commission-fit-for-55-package-unfit-to-contain-climate-crisis/ accessed 12/10/2021

[12]EEB, Fit for 55 EBB Assessment, 2021, https://mk0eeborgicuypctuf7e.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/EEB_FF55-2.pdf accessed 12/10/2021

[13] https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/greenhouse-gas-emission-trends-7/assessment accessed 12/10/2021

[14] Ibidem.

[15] https://www.statista.com/statistics/450017/co2-emissions-europe-eurasia/ accessed 12/10/2021

[16] https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental-indicator-report-2018 accessed 12/10/2021

[17] https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions accessed 12/10/2021

[18] https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/ accessed 12/10/2021

[19] Ibidem

[20] https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2 accessed 12/10/2021

[21] https://ourworldindata.org/share-co2-emissions accessed 12/10/2021

[22] https://www.statista.com/chart/24306/carbon-emissions-per-capita-by-country/ accessed 12/10/2021

[23] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/t2020_rd300/default/line?lang=en accessed 12/10/2021

[24] Feyen L., Ciscar J.C., Gosling S., Ibarreta D., Soria A. (editors) (2020). Climate change impacts and adaptation in Europe. JRC PESETA IV final report. EUR 30180EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, ISBN 978-92-76-18123-1, doi:10.2760/171121, JRC119178.

[25]REGI committee of the European Parliament, Cohesion Policy and Climate Change, 2021 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2021/652247/IPOL_STU(2021)652247_EN.pdf accessed 12/10/2021

[26] Ibidem.

[27] Idem, pp.38-54.

[28] Idem, p. 101.

[29] https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/finance-and-green-deal/just-transition-mechanism_en accessed 12/10/2021

[30] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/214/just-transition-fund accessed 12/10/2021

[31] European Parliament Briefing, The European Green Deal and cohesion policy, October 2021. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/698058/EPRS_BRI(2021)698058_EN.pdf  accessed 12/10/2021

[32] https://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/european-issues/0567-what-should-we-make-of-the-just-transition-mechanism-put-forward-by-the-european-commission accessed 12/10/2021

[33] https://europeangreens.eu/climate-action/how-to-make-the-transition-toward-a-climate-neutral-europe-just-2/ accessed 13/10/2021

Pictures credits:AlainAudet.

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