Policy Context

1. The challenge of climate change

Climate change — a change in climate caused by human activity — is a global issue that has far-reaching environmental and socio-economic impacts. An intricate and cross-sectoral issue from a regulatory and policy perspective, climate change requires strategic action on a variety of fronts. The complexity of climate change and its relative newness as a policy challenge, particularly for local and regional authorities, makes it an important area for policy learning and the exchange of experience across countries and regions.

The consequences of a changing climate can already be observed in Europe and worldwide, and these impacts are predicted to increase steadily in the future. The most obvious effects are the increase of surface temperature and the change of precipitation patterns. The increasing temperature causes changing precipitation patterns and a shift in rainfall, and as a result, many regions will experience more frequent droughts and floods. Coastal and mountain areas as well as flood plains will be particularly vulnerable. Extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, heavy rain and snow, storms and floods are becoming more common or more intense. To avoid the most serious risks of climate change, the Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to limit the rise of global mean temperature to below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels; this goal is supported by the EU.

The impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed — the poorest countries and people will suffer earliest and most. And if and when the damages appear it will be too late to reverse the process. Thus we are forced to look a long way ahead.” (Stern, Nicholas, ed. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

For societies, tackling climate change essentially requires action on two fronts. The mitigation of future climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions requires efforts to improve efficiency in sectors that are responsible for high emissions, such as energy, transport and agriculture. Adaptation to climate change involves understanding future climate change and its specific environmental, social and economic impacts, and taking action to prepare for and adjust to these impacts. These may include the development of flood defences, disaster warning systems or green infrastructure to promote cooling in urban areas. Ideally, climate change mitigation and adaptation should not be seen as alternatives but rather as a combined set of actions in an overall strategy to reduce GHG emissions and cope with the inevitable impacts of climate change. While addressing mitigation and adaptation often requires the input of different authorities, experts and stakeholders and covers different economic and planning sectors, an overall coordinated policy response is the most effective.

International action towards climate change mitigation through global commitments to reduce GHG emissions has been ongoing since 1992 through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). By 1995, it was apparent that emission reductions provisions in the Convention were inadequate. Following negotiations aiming to strengthen the global response to climate change, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol legally binds developed countries to emission reduction targets. The Protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. The second commitment period began on 1 January 2013 and will end in 2020. The launching of a new platform of negotiations under the Convention was agreed at the 2011 UN Climate Change Conference in Durban. The aim of the platform will be to deliver a new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol by 2015 for the period beyond 2020.
During much of this period, the EU has taken a leading role in negotiating commitments to reduce GHG emissions and promoting international solidarity for providing expertise and financing to enable adaptation to climate change on a global scale. This is also reflected in the priority given to climate change — both mitigation and adaptation — on the EU strategic policy agenda.

2. The EU strategic and regulatory framework

The EU has set itself ambitious objectives for combating climate change. In 2008, it adopted a series of legal instruments aimed at cutting GHG emissions, mainly through increases in renewable energy use and energy efficiency. In addition to efforts to mitigate climate change, the European Commission is also taking action to strengthen climate adaptation in the EU and has a critical role in coordinating and supporting adaptation planning and action across the EU.

The EU climate-energy package: This legislative package, also known as the ’20-20-20’ regulations, sets three key objectives for the EU in 2020:

  • A 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels;
  • Raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20%;
  • A 20% improvement in the EU's energy efficiency.

Binding targets are set individually for the Member States; these are monitored regularly by the European Commission. According to the latest emissions projections submitted by the Member States, the EU27 will over-achieve its 2020 GHG emissions reduction target by 1%. Some countries require significant additional effort to meet their national target. Figure 2 below shows the projected gaps between 2020 GHG emissions and national targets in the sectors not covered by the EU Emission Trading System (EU ETS).

Figure 2: Projected gaps between 2020 GHG emissions and national targets in the sectors not covered by the EU ETS

Regarding the increased share of renewables, national targets vary among the Member States. Figure 3 shows the latest progress made by Member States towards achieving their 2020 renewable energy targets. It also shows the interim target for each Member State under the Renewable Energy Directive, for the years 2011/2012. Some countries had already made good progress by 2010 based on the interim targets, but accelerated progress is expected by the Directive for the final period, meaning that considerably more work is needed in many Member States to reach the 2020 targets.

Figure 3: Share of renewables in gross final energy consumption in 2010 compared to 2020 targets and 2011/2012 interim targets with normalised hydro and wind

Under the new Energy Efficiency Directive Member States will have to define national energy efficiency targets as part of their national efficiency programmes in 2013. In 2014, the Commission will assess progress achieved to date.

The Europe 2020 Strategy: Adopted in June 2010, this is the EU’s agenda for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The strategy integrates the EU’s climate and energy package: the targets for GHG emissions, renewables and energy efficiency have been adopted as key ‘headline targets’ for sustainable growth in the EU for 2020. The inclusion of climate change and energy targets into a growth strategy reflects the opportunities that a shift to low-carbon economic activity presents for the EU. The sustainable growth priority of the Europe 2020 Strategy underlines the imperative to act on combating climate change and to strengthen economic resilience to climate risks and capacity for disaster prevention.

The flagship initiative ‘Resource-Efficient Europe’: The Europe 2020 Strategy is underpinned by a series of ‘flagship initiatives’, one of which calls for decoupling economic growth from resource use by increasing the use of renewable resources, promoting energy efficiency and creating a cleaner transport sector. Diversification of energy supply is a key priority, and the strategy highlights the need for greater investments in renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind and solar power. It also emphasises the importance of national strategies and stresses the crucial need to mobilise regional policy funding and to streamline it with other available funds. 

The Roadmap to a Competitive Low-Carbon Economy by 2050: Adopted in March 2011, the roadmap shows the way towards a low-carbon European economy and highlights the benefits of such development. The roadmap envisions a low-carbon economy that is 80% less carbon intensive than at present and that is based on low energy consumption, low pollution and low emissions. The roadmap describes a cost-effective pathway to reach the EU’s long-term objective of cutting GHG emissions by 80 to 95% of 1990 levels by 2050. The EC roadmap provides a future direction for sectoral policies, national and regional low-carbon strategies and long-term investments.

Green paper ‘A 2030 Framework for Climate and Energy Policies’: The European Commission has begun preparations for more concrete energy policy objectives for the 2030 framework. The green paper recognises a need to provide certainty and reduce regulatory risk for investors and to mobilise the necessary funding; to support progress towards a competitive economy and a secure energy system; and to establish the EU's 2030 ambitions for GHG reductions in view of a new international agreement on climate change foreseen for 2015. It is expected that the 2030 framework will build on the experience acquired and lessons learnt from the 2020 framework, and will identify areas for future improvements. 

EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change: The European Commission adopted this strategy in April 2013, aimed at contributing to a more climate-resilient Europe. Based on a 2009 green paper and extensive stakeholder consultation and analysis of the EU’s role in the coordination and promotion of climate change adaptation, it has three main objectives:

  • Promoting action by Member States: The Commission will encourage all Member States to adopt comprehensive adaptation strategies (at present, 15 have strategies) and will provide funding to help them build up their adaptation capacities and take action. It will also support adaptation in cities by launching a voluntary commitment based on the Covenant of Mayors initiative.
  • 'Climate-proofing' action at EU level by further promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and cohesion policy, ensuring that Europe's infrastructure is made more resilient, and promoting the use of insurance against natural and man-made disasters.
  • Better informed decision-making by addressing gaps in knowledge about adaptation and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the 'one-stop shop' for adaptation information in Europe.

Seven action items are proposed in the adaptation strategy to work towards these objectives. These include the development of comprehensive adaptation strategies at the national, regional and local levels, and the development of a number of support platforms and guidance documents to assist the Member States in doing this; these are described where relevant in subsequent sections of this report.

Finally, the EU Environment Action Programmes (EAPs) are important as they guide the development of EU environment policy. The 7th EAP will cover the period to 2020 and support further integration of environmental objectives into the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy. Key features of the programme are: protecting natural capital, encouraging more resource efficiency, accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy, and to incorporate other initiatives relevant to climate change.

The EU Cohesion Policy provides funding for EU Member States and regions to help them achieve the EU’s strategic goals, and in particular to support the development of regions that lag behind in economic terms. In 2011, a communication (3) from the European Commission stressed the potential for regions to use the funds to support the sustainable growth priority of the Europe 2020 Strategy, in particular to contribute to a resource-efficient, low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. The proposed regulations for the EU Cohesion Policy for the 2014–2020 period place greater emphasis on the challenge of climate change than in the past, in recognition of the importance of this issue for wider EU strategic development objectives. Member States and regions will be able to target funds specifically for the transition to a low-carbon economy (Thematic Objective 4) and for adaptation to climate change (Thematic Objective 5). The proposed regulations recognise sustainable development as a horizontal principle and also state that funding programmes must promote climate change adaptation, disaster resilience, and risk prevention and management in the programmes.

In addition, climate change objectives (both mitigation and adaptation) have a special role in EU spending overall for the 2014–2020 period. The EC has proposed that overall, 20% of the 2014–2020 EU budget should target climate change objectives. Cohesion Policy programmes will therefore need to set out the indicative amount of support for climate change objectives.

The LIFE programme, which is the EU budget’s funding instrument dedicated to the environment, will add a sub-programme dedicated to climate change for 2014-2020. It will cover climate-related objectives in three areas:

  • ‘Climate Change Mitigation’ will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions;
  • ‘Climate Change Adaptation’ will focus on increasing resilience to climate change;
  • ‘Climate Governance and Information’ will focus on increasing awareness, communication, cooperation and dissemination on climate mitigation and adaptation actions.

Another relevant EU funding instrument is the NER300 programme, which supports innovative low-carbon energy demonstration projects. The focus is on carbon capture and storage and renewable energy technologies, and the programme seeks to leverage private and/or national co-funding across the EU. It is funded from the sale of emissions allowances from the third phase of the EU emissions trading system and managed by the European Investment Bank. All funding proposals must be endorsed by the relevant Member State authorities.

Various platforms and initiatives for cooperation on tackling climate change at regional and local level have been also launched. The Covenant of Mayors, for example, assists European cities and regions to work together towards developing and implementing sustainable energy policies through the implementation of local sustainable energy action plans. Further examples are the Energy Cities initiative, which is an association of local authorities; and the Smart Cities initiative that builds on existing national and EU programmes and supports the shift to a low-carbon economy. The EC Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG CLIMA) initiative ‘A world you like with a climate you like’ comprises a collection of success stories related to the implementation of the 2050 low-carbon roadmap.

In relation to climate change adaptation, DG CLIMA supports the EU-Cities Adapt project. The project will provide capacity building and assistance for cities in developing and implementing and adaptation strategy through awareness raising and the development of a knowledge bank, along with targeted support for selected cities. In 2013-14, DG CLIMA will also support the development of an adaptation-oriented political covenant initiative for local authorities (modelled on the Covenant of Mayors framework, described above) as one of the action items under the Adaptation Strategy.

The European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT) is a partnership between the European Commission (DG CLIMA, Joint Research Centre and other DGs) and the European Environment Agency. It is a web portal aimed to support Europe in adapting to climate change; its further development as a ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe is one of the key action items of the EU Adaptation Strategy. It contains a database of up-to-date information, including spatial information on climate impacts, case studies, news and events and a support tool for developing an approach to adaptation. Climate-ADAPT is also intended for use by the European Commission as the reporting tool for monitoring progress by Member States on developing adaptation strategies and overall levels of readiness to cope with climate change impacts.

3. Climate change as a threat and opportunity for regions in Europe

The climate change challenge has special significance for regional and local authorities in the EU. Most of the natural resources (river basins, catchment areas, flood plains) and socio-economic systems (agriculture, tourism, urban structures) that are likely to be affected by climate change in the coming decades are unique to specific local and/or regional areas. Climate impacts and vulnerabilities as well as capacity to adapt are therefore determined at local and regional levels, where detailed information and strategic action plans are required. While the climate and energy targets adopted by the EU are binding at national level, many of the actions to be taken with regard to behavioural charge will be guided by local and regional-level policies and initiatives. Figure 4 below illustrates the chain of climate change impacts on regional plans.

Figure 4: Climate change trends and effects; threats and opportunities and related regional plans 

Understanding climate change is not a simple task for most policymakers and for the public who are not specialists on the subject. Many of the threats and risks related to climate change are long-term in nature, and often well beyond the thinking or planning horizons of key players. Mitigating climate change by reducing GHG emissions is a similarly vague concept: goals and targets exist at global and national levels but are rarely made concrete enough to serve as a motivating factor for regions or local communities. A real challenge in terms of climate change is therefore to build the case for action by identifying benefits that outweigh the upfront costs. This requires work with technical experts, researchers and academics in order to understand how the science behind climate change translates into socio-economic impacts, and what opportunities exist for integrating climate change issues into the wide range of relevant policies and strategies.

The cross-cutting nature of climate change, along with its fragmented character — that is, how its various aspects interact and complement one another — are especially challenging for European regions, and this complicates climate change planning and the implementation of related actions. In many cases, climate change impacts are poorly understood, and the need to invest political and financial capital in addressing them is clear neither to decision-makers nor to the public. Another challenge is the cross-sectoral nature of climate change, meaning that there is not always one institution or group within an authority that takes full ownership and responsibility for climate change policy-making and action. While solutions and technologies for climate change mitigation and adaptation may be readily available, the techniques for their application are lacking in many European regions.

Another challenge for regions when dealing with climate change is determining their level of competence. Across the EU Member States there are diverse approaches to multi-level governance and the extent to which local and regional authorities have the responsibility and authority to plan and implement climate change actions. Clear understanding of the relative competencies across national, regional and local levels of governance is very important as a basis for investing resources in climate change.

There is therefore great potential for local and regional authorities to learn from each other in order to better understand how climate change is being treated as a policy issue, and how comprehensive and sector-specific action planning is being carried out; what kinds of information and awareness techniques work well; and what concrete methods can be applied to assess vulnerabilities or the costs and benefits of various GHG mitigation actions. Joint actions and cooperation between regions can help to address these challenges and increase the effectiveness of climate change policy efforts at regional and local levels. Cooperation also provides an opportunity for those regions which are lagging behind in addressing climate change to learn from the frontrunners on how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by low-carbon development or how to assess risks and plan for climate change adaptation.

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