12.2.3 Current adaptation and adaptive capacity
It is apparent that climate variability and change already affects features and functions of Europe’s production systems (e.g., agriculture, forestry and fisheries), key economic sectors (e.g., tourism, energy) and its natural environment. Some of these effects are beneficial, but most are estimated to be negative (EEA, 2004b). European institutions have recognised the need to prepare for an intensification of these impacts even if greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced (e.g., EU Environmental Council meeting, December 2004).
The sensitivity of Europe to climate change has a distinct north-south gradient, with many studies indicating that southern Europe will be more severely affected than northern Europe (EEA, 2004b). The already hot and semi-arid climate of southern Europe is expected to become warmer and drier, and this will threaten its waterways, agricultural production and timber harvests (e.g., EEA, 2004b). Nevertheless, northern countries are also sensitive to climate change.
The Netherlands is an example of a country highly susceptible to both sea-level rise and river flooding because 55% of its territory is below sea level where 60% of its population lives and 65% of its Gross National Product (GNP) is produced. As in other regions, natural ecosystems in Europe are more vulnerable to climate change than managed systems such as agriculture and fisheries (Hitz and Smith, 2004). Natural ecosystems usually take decades or longer to become established and therefore adapt more slowly to climatic changes than managed systems. The expected rate of climate change in Europe is likely to exceed the current adaptive capacity of various non-cultivated plant species (Hitz and Smith, 2004). Sensitivity to climate variability and change also varies across different ecosystems. The most sensitive natural ecosystems in Europe are located in the Arctic, in mountain regions, in coastal zones (especially the Baltic wetlands) and in various parts of the Mediterranean (WBGU, 2003). Ecosystems in these regions are already affected by an increasing trend in temperature and decreasing precipitation in some areas and may be unable to cope with expected climate change.
The possible consequences of climate change in Europe have stimulated efforts by the EU, national governments, businesses, and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to develop adaptation strategies. The EU is supporting adaptation research at the pan-European level while Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and the UK are setting up national programmes for adapting to climate change. Plans for adaptation to climate change have been included in flood protection plans of the Czech Republic and coastal protection plans of the Netherlands and Norway.