Europe at risk from climate hazards

13 March 2024

The just-released European Climate Risk Assessment presents a stark picture of the future of climate change in Europe. In this piece, Eurocities presents its response to the findings, and the Communication on the issue published by the European Commission. The report highlights Europe as the fastest-warming continent, with a notable increase in mean temperatures, sea surface temperatures, heatwave days, and sea levels, alongside varying trends in precipitation and drought conditions across different regions.

These changes, driven by human activities, have led to 2023 being the warmest year on record globally, with Europe experiencing unprecedented warming rates since the 1980s. The projections indicate that climate hazards, including heatwaves, prolonged droughts, heavy precipitation, and rising sea levels, will intensify throughout the 21st century, even under optimistic emission scenarios. The potential economic damages from coastal floods alone in the EU could exceed €1 trillion every year by the century’s end under a high emissions scenario.

So far, economic losses from such disasters have already been staggering, with the EU incurring approximately €650 billion in damages between 1980 and 2022. There is a clear economic case for equipping local government with the necessary resources to mitigate and adapt.

The severity and impact of these climatic changes are exacerbated by a lack of societal preparedness and resilience. The report has identified 36 major climate risks for Europe, with urgent action required for 21 of them to mitigate adverse effects on health, economies, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Southern Europe, low-lying coastal areas, and the outermost EU regions are particularly vulnerable, as they face significant risks from heat, drought, and sea level rise.

Adaptation strategies need to address these challenges holistically, considering the interconnectedness of climate risks and the cascading impacts across sectors and regions, to safeguard the continent’s future against the escalating threats of climate change. With climate change already having such a dramatic impact on our cities, and projections indicating that this will increase ever-more rapidly, the need for urgent action is clear. This is especially true given that climate impacts will disproportionally affect the most vulnerable groups in our societies.

EU Commission response

The European Commission Communication that followed the European Climate Risk Assessment on 12 March proposes an assessment of existing policies to integrate climate risks, mainstreaming adaptation and resilience.

Among the many proposals, the Commission notes an issue with the National Energy and Climate Plans, the framework within which European Union member states must plan their climate and energy objectives, targets, policies, and measures for the European Commission.  There is a mismatch between  member states’ stated objectives and their actually planned and implemented policies on climate adaptation. This is a key issue for cities, as they need national backing for their efforts to take an integrated approach to climate mitigation and adaptation locally.

Other key points concern the need for a better governance structure with coordination between national, regional and local level to ensure each of them have the necessary resources and capabilities to face climate risks, as access to granular data will be essential for this. Training and open courses for public administrators will be very important, but probably not sufficient: the Covid pandemic, the energy crisis, and extreme weather events have proven there is a growing need to invest in organisation resilience at local level.

In Antwerp, for example, this has been achieved by creating of the role of ‘Chief Resilience Officer,’ whose mandate is to take a proactive approach to ensure the city’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from diverse crises. This role is designed to embed resilience into the fabric of municipal operations, transcending traditional climate adaptation strategies to encompass a broader, more holistic view of resilience. Emphasising that organisational resilience is a collective responsibility, Antwerp’s strategy involves every level of the municipality in the anticipation, coping, and adaptation cycle. This inclusive approach aims to make the city’s infrastructure and services more robust and flexible.

Despite the European Climate Risk Assessment’s clear call for immediate action, the European Commission’s Communication demonstrates a lack of vision and ambition. Probably because of the nearing end of the current Commission’s mandates, it only foresees mainstreaming climate resilience within its already existing instruments. It will therefore fall upon the shoulders of the next EU mandate to make climate resilience one of the priorities to match the facts that the European Climate Risk Assessment has presented.

The Communication also does not adequately recognise the local level as a real partner in building resilience, seeing local governments rather as risk owners than empowered actors in responding to the impacts of climate change. This is another front upon which it will be up to the next mandate to take a more grounded approach.

A key issue for cities

Climate adaptation is a key issue for cities. Many cities have already set ambitious strategies to prepare for and adjust to both the current effects of climate change and the predicted impacts in the future, with nearly 90% of Eurocities members having adopted a climate adaptation strategy to protect their residents.

Cities feel the impacts of climate changes and have to provide swift and effective response to damages and losses. They also have the responsibility to protect their populations, to secure infrastructure and operations, and to provide a good quality of life for local people during phenomena like heat waves. This means taking action that makes urban and regional infrastructure more resilient to these events and reducing damage when such events occur, including both economic losses and fatalities.

When planning adaptation action plans, cities are also taking decisions that involve urban planning, defining standards for existing and new buildings, creation of green and blue infrastructure, and developing plans for protecting vulnerable citizens and infrastructure during extreme weather events. This is why climate change adaptation and risk preparedness must be mainstreamed into existing policies to achieve coherence and synergies, and to avoid counter-productive actions. This is true at the local level, although it remains a key challenge, and  it should also happen at the EU and national level.

Local risk and vulnerability

Cities are keeping abreast of the risks and vulnerabilities that may endanger urban systems and the people living within them. The forthcoming Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey shows that 70% of cities are already aware of the main hazards that they have to prepare for.

Many cities are focusing their adaptation strategies on nature-based solutions, an approach bolstered by the EU’s recently enacted Nature Restoration Law. In Ghent, the local risk and vulnerability analyses has led the city to prioritise heat, drought, and flooding. The city’s approach to these risks includes de-paving, greening, and enhancing water spaces.

The local government takes a collaborative approach to increasing resilience, from advising on climate-resilient designs for private developments, to drafting rainwater-neutral development guidelines, and facilitating cross-departmental collaboration for policy development. Ghent is also assessing the effects of climate change on urban organisation and preparing city services for adaptation, including a pilot project on heat impact.

Effective adaptation strategies require collaboration with other levels of government, and across departments. For example Ghent takes advantage of the Flemish rainwater regulation that mandates larger rainwater systems for new projects from 2025, and the Flemish government supports Ghent’s adaptation measures through the local climate pact, financed by emissions trading revenues.

Using nature

Nature regeneration and the implementation of green and blue infrastructure (plants and water features) are win-win solutions, offering numerous benefits including climate change mitigation, adaptation, and biodiversity protection. The Commission’s Communication stresses that future-proofed nature-based solutions can be cost-effective and increase resilience, and that they should be the first climate adaptation choice whenever possible.

With 81% of EU habitats in poor condition, substantial investment in nature restoration is essential for long-term recovery, offering a high return on investment in terms of environmental, social, and economic benefits. However, the reality is that nature-based solutions have long lead times on investment and require long-term maintenance, so unless there is a fundamental shift in the way these are financed, ‘grey’ solutions (traditional approaches like building sea walls) will remain the default. This will have the unfortunate consequence of locking cities into further heat stress and environmental degradation. The question of financing nature-based solutions, therefore, is an important one for the European Commission and member states.

The Commission’s Communication notes that the development of national restoration plans under the upcoming Nature Restoration Law should ensure synergies with climate resilience, and that it will support member states by providing guidance on the development of climate resilient landscapes.

While this is essential, another EU Communication on the 2040 climate targets, published in February, failed to establish differentiated targets for carbon removals choosing rather to set a combined target for both natural sinks and industrial carbon removal. The 2040 Communication also failed to mention the Nature Restoration Law altogether. This sends a confusing signal as to the Commission’s view on the role of nature in climate mitigation and adaptation. It is crucial that policies are aligned at all governmental levels.

Cities lead the way

Cities across Europe have already seen much success in a nature-based approach to climate adaptation. Examples from Barcelona, Lille Metropolitan Area and Wroclaw present just a small snapshot of local action in this regard.

Barcelona has initiated a project to transform school playgrounds into climate shelters, adding plants and water facilities to cool down the area during the city’s hot and humid summers. This initiative makes these spaces available to the public, especially benefiting the elderly and those with heat-sensitive conditions. The first ten pilot schools were completed in August 2021, with plans to expand the project and transform a total of 3,000 square meters of schoolyards across the city.

Lille Metropolitan Area is focused on preventive rainwater management to handle water where it falls, using nature-based solutions to mitigate flood and drought risks. The strategy includes enhancing storm water drains for better water management, which aids in urban cooling, improves the living environment, and promotes the return of nature and biodiversity. Lille has also embarked on green infrastructure projects, such as new forestation and replanting strategies, to boost biodiversity and enhance climate resilience.

Efforts are underway to identify public areas for planting native trees and collaborate with local companies for a comprehensive response to climate adaptation. Lille’s approach also recognises the economic potential of adaptation and the green jobs it will create. The Metropolitan Area has developed a training programme to educate over 400 workers on improved water management practices.

Wroclaw responded to a catastrophic flood by integrating its river system into the city’s life, focusing on flood protection and urban development. The city strengthened flood defences and encouraged riverside community projects like beaches and bars. It also diversified the use of its rivers, including for recreation, conservation, cultural heritage and mobility – including launching a water tram service. Wroclaw’s transformation also includes promoting sustainable food systems and social gardens for local agriculture, enhancing community integration and environmental education.

As the Climate Risk Assessment reports, the impacts of climate change on water are set to deepen in the future, including a growing risk of mega droughts that will have cascading effects on food security, drinking water supply, and energy production. Delays in implementing integrated water management will be unaffordable. The Commission’s communication was intended to be published on the same day as a Water Resilience Initiative, which has now been shelved. Water security, supply, quality, and management are key for European cities, and require a joined-up approach at EU and member state level.

As it comes into force, the Nature Restoration Law will contribute to local mitigation and adaptation efforts by providing cities with the legal support to protect and enhance urban green space for the health and wellbeing of nature and people alike.

Adaptation priorities

The forthcoming Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey sheds light on cities’ adaptation priorities, demonstrating a focus on resilient infrastructures and greener urban environments. Priorities include adapting buildings and streets to better handle climate impacts, upgrading sewage and water management systems, and deploying new shade areas to combat heatwaves.

Greening initiatives are prominent, with plans to increase green cover, create green spaces, and implement nature-based solutions to enhance biodiversity and manage water more sustainably. Public health and social impacts are also local priorities, with an emphasis on the need to protect vulnerable groups and ensure community engagement in climate adaptation efforts. Securing funding, involving the private sector, and leveraging technology and innovation are all considered crucial for implementing comprehensive climate plans.

Much to overcome

Key challenges for cities in going forward with climate adaptation include engagement, funding, knowledge, and regulatory alignment. Engaging local residents and stakeholders is a significant hurdle, requiring effective communication and participation strategies to ensure community buy-in and support. Access to public funding and mobilising private finance are also crucial issues, as cities struggle to secure the resources for adaptation.

This is compounded by the difficulty in designing viable financing models that can attract and sustain investment in climate adaptation projects. The complex nature of adaptation projects stokes the difficulty in attracting investment, as does the difficulty in assessing their outcomes due to their incremental and integrated nature. The Commission’s proposed temporary reflection group on Mobilising Climate Resilience Financing should also discuss gaps and obstacles in financing local adaptation projects, such as lack of incentives and mandated measures, lack of data and data sharing with public administrations.

Establishing a supportive financial environment for local climate adaptation actions is essential, focusing on securing funding for the planning, implementation, and monitoring stages. There’s a critical need for improved dialogue between cities and investors to enhance cities’ capacity to develop finance-ready project ideas, with the EU or national level providing necessary technical assistance and investor matching. There’s also a significant demand for financial tools tailored to adaptation, such as green bonds and innovative financing mechanisms like pooled funds and climate bonds, backed by public funding or EU support as guarantees.

Cities also need to boost the knowledge and capacity of their staff, requiring more capacity building, technical support and peer learning opportunities. Local leaders also flagged difficulties with accessing existing tools and information that could assist their adaptation efforts.

To be effective, national and local adaptation plans must be aligned. Unfortunately, national plans often miss local specifics and fail to collaborate with cities, losing out on detailed local data for planning. The inherent local and regional nature of climate change impacts necessitates incorporating these levels into national strategies to ensure effective implementation. This means aligning National Restoration Plans, local Urban Greening Plans (or Urban Nature Plans as these may be renamed) with other local and national level climate and spatial plans.

If we are to avert disaster and achieve the ‘least-worst-case’ scenario outlined in the European Climate Risk Assessment, it will be essential to bring local leaders to the table to design effective approaches to an immediate shift in national and European policy.


Eugenia Mansutti Projects coordinator & Policy Advisor (Covenant of Mayors, Climate and Energy)