IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

12.8 Key uncertainties and research priorities

Uncertainties in future climate projections are discussed in great detail in Working Group I Section 10.5 (Meehl et al., 2007). For Europe, a major uncertainty is the future behaviour of the NAO and North Atlantic THC. Also important, but not specific to Europe, are the uncertainties associated with the still insufficient resolution of GCMs (e.g., Etchevers et al., 2002; Bronstert, 2003), and with downscaling techniques and regional climate models (Mearns et al., 2003; Haylock et al., 2006; Déqué et al., 2007). Uncertainties in climate impact assessment also stem from the uncertainties of land-use change and socio-economic development (Rounsevell et al., 2005, 2006) following European policies (e.g., CAP), and European Directives (Water Framework Directive, European Maritime Strategy Directive). Although most impact studies use the SRES scenarios, the procedures for scenario development are the subject of debate (Castle and Henderson, 2003a, b; Grübler et al., 2004; Holtsmark and Alfsen, 2005; van Vuuren and Alfsen, 2006). While current scenarios appear to reflect well the course of events in the recent past (van Vuuren and O’Neill, 2006), further research is needed to better account for the range of possible scenarios (Tol, 2006). This might be important for Europe given the many economies in transition.

Uncertainties in assessing future climate impacts also arise from the limitations of climate impact models including (i) structural uncertainty due to the inability of models to capture all influential factors, e.g., the models used to assess health impacts of climate change usually neglect social factors in the spread of disease (Kuhn et al., 2004; Reiter et al., 2004; Sutherst, 2004), and climate-runoff models often neglect the direct effect of increasing CO2 concentration on plant transpiration (Gedney et al., 2006), (ii) lack of long-term representative data for model evaluation, e.g., current vector-monitoring systems are often unable to provide the reliable identification of changes (Kovats et al., 2001). Hence, more attention should be given to structural improvement of models and intensifying efforts of long-term monitoring of the environment, and systematic testing of models against observed data in field trials or catchment monitoring programmes (Hildén et al., 2005). Another way to address the uncertainty of deterministic models is to use probabilistic modelling which can produce an ensemble of scenarios, (e.g., Wilby and Harris, 2006; Araújo and New, 2007; ENSEMBLES project, http://ensembles-eu.metoffice.com/).

Until now, most impact studies have been conducted for separate sectors even if, in some cases, several sectors have been included in the same study (e.g., Schröter et al., 2005). Few studies have addressed impacts on various sectors and systems including their possible interactions by integrated modelling approaches (Holman et al., 2005; Berry et al., 2006). Even in these cases, there are various levels (supra-national, national, regional and sub-regional) that need to be jointly considered, since, if adaptation measures are to be implemented, knowledge down to the lowest decision level will be required. The varied geography, climate and human values of Europe pose a great challenge for evaluation of the ultimate impacts of climate change.

Although there are some good examples, such as the ESPACE-project (Nadarajah and Rankin, 2005), national-scale programmes, such as the FINADAPT project, studies of adaptation to climate change and of adaptation costs are at an early stage and need to be carried out urgently. These studies need to match adaptation measures to specific climate change impacts (e.g., targeted to alleviating impacts on particular types of agriculture, water management or on tourism at specific locations). They need to take into account regional differences in adaptive capacity (e.g., wide regional differences exist in Europe in the style and application of coastal management). Adaptation studies need to consider that in some cases both positive and negative impacts may occur as a result of climate change (e.g., the productivity of some crops may increase, while others decrease at the same location, e.g., Alexandrov et al., 2002). Key research priorities for impacts of climate change, adaptation and implications are included in Table 12.5.

Table 12.5. Key uncertainties and research needs.

Impact of climate change 
  • Improved long-term monitoring of climate-sensitive physical (e.g., cryosphere), biological (e.g., ecosystem) and social sectors (e.g., tourism, human health).
  • Improvement of climate impact models, including better understanding of mechanism of climate impacts, e.g., of heat/cold morbidity, differences between impacts due to short-term climate variability and long-term climate change, and the effects of extreme events, e.g., heatwaves, droughts, on longer-term dynamics of both managed and natural ecosystems.
  • Simultaneous consideration of climatic and non-climatic factors, e.g., the synergistic effect of climate change and air pollution on buildings, or of climate change and other environmental factors on the epidemiology of vector-borne diseases; the validation and testing of climate impact models through the enhancement of experimental research; increased spatial scales; long-term field studies and the development of integrated impact models.
  • Enhancement of climate change impact assessment in areas with little or no previous investigation, e.g., groundwater, shallow lakes, flow regimes of mountain rivers, renewable energy sources, travel behaviour, transport infrastructure, tourist demand, major biogeochemical cycles, stability, composition and functioning of forests, natural grasslands and shrublands), nutrient cycling and crop protection in agriculture.
  • More integrated impact studies, e.g., of sensitive ecosystems including human dimensions.
  • Better understanding of the socio-economic consequences of climate change for different European regions with different adaptive capacity.
Adaptation measures 
  • The comprehensive evaluation (i.e., of effectiveness, economy and constraints) of adaptation measures used in past in different regions of Europe to reduce the adverse impacts of climate variability and extreme meteorological events.
  • Better understanding, identification and prioritisation of adaptation options for coping with the adverse effects of climate change on crop productivity, on the quality of aquatic ecosystems, on coastal management and the capacity of health services.
  • Evaluation of the feasibility, costs and benefits of potential adaptation options, measures and technologies.
  • Quantification of bio-climatic limitations of prevalent plant species.
  • Continuation of studies on the regional differences in adaptive capacity.
  • Identification of populations at risk and the lag time of climate change impacts.
  • Approaches for including climate change in management policy and institutions.
  • Consideration of non-stationary climate in the design of engineering structures.
  • Identification of the implications of climate change for water, air, health and environmental standards.
  • Identification of the pragmatic information needs of managers responsible for adaptation.