Climate change in Europe

Far from being a far-away threat, the impacts of climate change are already being felt in Europe and around the world. Urgent and decisive action is needed to both drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changes already occurring, especially in vulnerable countries and communities. In this section we highlight several EU policy issues on the fight against climate change.
Cerknica depression in Slovenia

Paris - and after

After two weeks of intense discussions, nearly 200 countries reached the historic Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015. The EU was one of the driving forces behind the agreement and IUCN actively contributed to this landmark event. 

The challenge for Europe will be to turn the Paris Agreement into targeted greenhouse gas reductions. The risk however, is that the current legislation may prevent Europe’s ability of reaching the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. Europe’s 2030 legislative agenda for instance, may be ‘locking-in’ lower ambition targets. To avoid this, specific proposals should be put forward to allow immediate implementation of an increase of the overall 2030 target. Europe should also consider the likelihood of surpassing the 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 when addressing the “at least” 40% domestic reduction target for 2030. Confirming the upper end of the current reduction range of 80-95% for 2050 will also help ensure the necessary long-term commitments.

Ecosystem-based adaptation

In parallel, the European Commission and a number of Member States have developed adaptation strategies to help strengthen Europe's resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Healthy, well-functioning ecosystems improve nature’s resilience to the impacts of climate change. IUCN therefore promotes the approach of Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), which uses biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall climate adaptation strategy. These are often the most cost-effective adaptation solutions.

In Europe, EbA approaches are increasingly employed for countering the effects of climate change. For instance, creating salt marshes and flood plains to increase flood defences, particularly in vulnerable countries such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Another initiative is the creation of greening urban areas in order to reduce rising temperatures occurring in urban areas.

The role of deforestation in climate change mitigation

Global deforestation exacerbates climate change by destroying the vital carbon sinks provided by forests. Today, deforestation is responsible for around 20% of global CO2 emissions, making it a major contributor to climate change, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.

In 2008, EU Member States pledged to pursue the goal of halting forest cover loss by 2030 and halving tropical deforestation by 2020. Reaching this objective would help mitigate against climate change and provide numerous biodiversity benefits by 2020.

In a study released in 2013, the European Commission also recognised the role of EU consumption in driving global deforestation. Through the harvesting and consumption of goods such as oil crops, for instance soy and palm oil (and their derived products); meat, dairy products and biomass, EU citizens have a strong impact on deforestation in countries outside of the EU.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a mechanism for industrialised nations, including the EU Member States, to help developing countries fight climate change. REDD creates financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.

For more information, see IUCN: Approach to REDD+.

Forest landscape restoration

Forest landscape restoration (FLR) activities aim to regain ecological functionality and enhance human well-being across deforested or degraded forest landscapes. FLR focuses on both current and future needs; reinstating the goods, services and ecological processes that forests provide at the broader landscape level, rather than simply promoting increased tree cover at a particular location. Restoring degraded and deforested land enhances the resilience of ecosystems, reduces erosion, soil degradation and nutrient depletion and has the potential to contribute to over one-third of the total climate change mitigation that scientists believe is required by 2030.

In 2011, ministers at a global conference in Bonn (Germany) committed to restoring 150 million hectares of lost forests and degraded lands worldwide by 2020 (and by extension 350 million hectares by 2030). IUCN estimates that restoring 150 million hectares would be worth US$ 85 billion per year to national and global economies, and reaching the 2030 target could sequester approximately 1 GtCO2e (gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. While EU Member States have yet to put forward domestic pledges, the restoration potential for Europe is estimated at 129 million hectares.

Land-Use and Land-Use Change

Vegetation and soils in terrestrial ecosystems sequester large quantities of atmospheric CO2 and therefore act as important carbon sinks. Human-driven land-use changes such as agriculture, deforestation, land abandonment and drainage of wetlands destroys terrestrial soils and vegetation causing CO2 to be ‘released’ back into the atmosphere. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has coined these land-use activities as ‘land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF)’ and increasing acknowledgement is being given to the contribution LULUCF has toward greenhouse gas emissions.

Farmlands and forests cover around 90% of the EU’s land surface. Under the EU Climate and Energy Package, however, LULUCF is currently not included in carbon accounting. A consultation with Member States is however underway on whether, and how, these emissions should be included in the overall policy framework. Given the fundamentally different characteristics of LULUCF compared to other sectors such as energy and industry, a separate legal framework could be advisable for tackling this sector’s emissions.

A proposal from the European Commission will accelerate the debate on how to account for emissions from LULUCF. Reducing emissions from land use change is an important contribution to tackling climate change. Restoration efforts however, should strengthen, not detract from, Europe’s commitments to cutting carbon emissions from the energy, agriculture and transport industries.

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