Written by Liselotte Jensen with Sara Catharina Svensson.
|The European Youth Event will bring together thousands of young people in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on 9 and 10 June 2023, to share ideas about the future of Europe. This introduction to one of the major topics to be discussed during the EYE event is one of 11 prepared by the Parliament’s Research Service (EPRS). It offers an overview of the main lines of EU action and policy in the area concerned, and aims to act as a starting point for discussions during the event. You can find them all on this link.|
The effects of climate change are increasingly apparent, with rising temperatures, more frequent and intense natural disasters, and shifting weather patterns. These changes are primarily caused by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. This notes sets out briefly some of the causes and consequences of climate change and the action the European Union is taking to address it.
Facing the reality of climate change
Climate change – long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns – has been occurring for decades. The primary cause of climate change is the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases, which include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), trap heat from the sun and act as a blanket over the planet, leading to global warming and climate change.
The majority of CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. We use these fossil fuels in industry, in transport, to generate electricity and to keep warm. Another potent greenhouse gas, methane, mainly comes from cattle farming and rice cultivation, as well as from coal, oil and gas production. Forests can help absorb CO2, but deforestation and other changes in the way we use the land can also increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
A growing concern is the possibility of reaching climate tipping points. These are critical points beyond which a significant change or effect takes place in a system, with irreversible and often cascading impacts. Every six years, more than 200 scientists from around the world come together to produce a comprehensive report – based on research undertaken by thousands of scientists since the previous report was published – that gives an up-to-date picture of our understanding of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned in its latest report that, unless we take drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global warming will likely exceed 1.5 degree Celsius (°C) within 20 years and 2°C before 2100. The IPCC working groups identify 15 potential tipping points around the world, including changes in permafrost, which releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases when melting; ice sheets destabilising, triggering sea-level rise; and changing global monsoon patterns, causing floods or droughts.
Other researchers have determined that seven such tipping points are likely to occur at 1.5°C of global warming – and we may already have reached five of them. The collapse of the West-Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and subsequent sea level rise, is of particular concern for Europe, where more than a third of the European population lives in coastal regions. Such impending collapses are two of the tipping points that researchers believe may already be in motion. Others increasingly at risk of happening are the dieback of the most southern of the northern hemisphere forests and the thawing of permafrost. To avoid reaching these tipping points and having to pay the costs of the damage they will wreak, it is crucial that we reinforce efforts to limit global warming.
How will climate change affect us?
Even if we manage to slash emissions, the world is still likely to reach 1.5°C of warming within the next 20 years. This means that the impacts of climate change will become increasingly severe, with more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Heatwaves are particularly dangerous and deadly, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, older people and those with chronic health conditions. Droughts and crops lost to bad weather can lead to food shortages and economic instability. Extreme weather such as storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves can damage buildings and infrastructure, as well as disrupt transport and supply chains. Wildfires and a lack of fresh water are particularly damaging to ecosystems and wildlife. Rising sea levels are another major concern, as they can cause coastal flooding, erosion, and destroy homes and natural habitats.
Climate change will cost billions of euros and damage all our economic sectors. Adapting to the new conditions and making them less damaging by upgrading buildings, roads, railways and pipelines, developing new technologies, and changing our lifestyles will also cost (a lot of) money. The overall impact on the global economy is expected to be negative, with some regions and industries hit harder than others.
What is the European Union doing about climate change?
The European Green Deal is the EU’s strategy for our society to reach climate neutrality by 2050 (i.e. emissions of greenhouse gases must not exceed removals). The programme sets out actions to be taken related to the climate, environment and the economy, such as improving our food systems, protecting biodiversity and boosting the circular economy. One important part of the Green Deal was the adoption of the European Climate Law in June 2021. Under this law, the EU is legally obliged to become climate neutral by 2050 and to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions by 55 % by 2030, compared to what its emissions were in 1990.
To make sure that we meet our 2030 target, the European Commission proposed the ‘fit for 55‘ package. This package revises and updates existing laws so they meet climate targets and introduces new laws and strategies. These include ambitious changes to the three main elements of EU climate action: the EU Emissions Trading System Directive (EU ETS), the Effort-sharing Regulation, and the Land Use, Land-use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation.
The Emissions Trading System is the world’s first (and biggest) carbon market. In the EU, permitted emissions ceilings are set for some industries, such as power plants and energy-intensive industrial installations (which are responsible for about 40 % of the EU’s total domestic greenhouse gas emissions). Based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, businesses covered by the EU ETS have to buy allowances on the ETS market through auctions. Each emissions allowance entitles the holder to emit one tonne of CO2. Since 2012, the EU ETS also covers aviation emissions generated by flights within and between EU countries and also some partner countries outside the EU.
The Effort-sharing Regulation sets specific national emissions reduction targets for sectors not included in the EU ETS: transport, buildings, agriculture, small industrial installations, waste treatment, energy supply and product use. These emissions currently account for almost 60 % of the EU’s total domestic emissions.
The EU’s natural carbon sinks absorb CO2, helping to reduce its concentration in the atmosphere. The LULUCF Regulation aims at increasing this absorption, for example by restoring wetlands and bogs, planting new forests and halting deforestation. After a downward trend over the past decade, in terms of the amount of carbon removed by forest and agricultural land (and land where use has changed to, or from, one of these uses), specific targets per Member State will ensure an increase in carbon removals by 2030.
The ‘fit for 55’ package also includes other initiatives to reduce emissions from transport and buildings and increase our use of renewable energy. It sets up a new carbon border adjustment mechanism to ensure that producers of imported goods also pay for the pollution they cause.
The primary EU funds to support the transition to a greener economy will be the EU budget, with 30 % of its funding earmarked for climate action, and the Next Generation EU fund – created to assist the recovery from the effects of the COVID‑19 pandemic. The Just Transition Fund aims at helping regions most affected by the transition away from fossil fuels. Finally, the Social Climate Fund (part of the ‘fit for 55’ package) should go some way towards helping the most vulnerable households, micro-businesses and transport users meet the costs of moving to cleaner buildings and vehicles.
In February 2021, the European Commission adopted the new EU climate change adaptation strategy. The strategy aims to boost capacity to minimise and adapt to the impacts of climate change. It focuses on increasing knowledge and anticipating the effects of climate change, and developing policy to equip the EU to respond to a changing world. Adaptation actions include more green spaces and trees in urban areas, which can absorb intense rainfall and provide a cooling effect during heatwaves. For agriculture, changing crops to more heat and drought-resistant types can help reduce crop losses. Sharing knowledge on successful ways to adapt makes it easier to implement such measures in time.