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European Cities Hesitant to Adapt to Climate Change

By Tim Radford, Climate News Network

LONDON– European governments might have national targets to meet the demands of climate change. Many European cities, however, may not be in the mood.

Diana Reckien of Columbia University in the U.S. and 11 European colleagues report in the journal Climatic Change that one in three cities have no plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and seven out of 10 cities have no formal plans to adapt to climate change.

Sunrise on the waterfront at Liverpool, a city with a big stake in tackling climate change.
Credit: Scouserdave at en.wikipedia via Climate News Network

Cities – think factories, offices, cars, public transport, lighting, central heating, air conditioning, waste disposal and huge and continuous programs of building, demolition and renewal with steel, concrete, brick and glass – account for between 31 percent and 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cities represent huge concentrations of people and economic investment, vulnerable to flood, windstorm, extremes of temperature and other climate-related violence. And cities don’t actually have to involve themselves in the complex international deals that bedevil government climate policies.

Cities are at liberty to decide to reduce emissions, and to adapt to any future hazards that citizens may identify.

The research went beyond questionnaire and interview. The researchers focused on action rather than words. They made a detailed analysis of 200 large and medium-sized urban areas – large means more than 250,000 people; medium is defined as more than 50,000 – in 11 European countries.

Slow to adapt

They looked at strategic policy and planning documents; they scrutinized adaptation plans that might abate or reduce vulnerability to climate change; and they considered mitigation plans that involved improved energy efficiency and renewable energy generation.

Only one city in four had taken steps both to adapt to climate change and to mitigate it by setting measurable targets to reduce emissions. Overall, 130 of the 200 cities had a mitigation plan and 28 percent had an adaptation plan.

But civic ambitions varied across national boundaries. More than 90 percent of British cities had a mitigation plan; of cities in France and Belgium only around 42 percent had confronted the challenge.

The European Union is a leader in the attempt to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But quite a few European cities seem not to have heard of climate change.
Credit: Flickr/Johan Koolwaaij

Of the 30 cities examined in Britain, 80 percent had adaptation plans, but in Germany out of 40 cities, only 33 percent were ready. The Dutch scored highest for ambition, by aiming for 100 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.

Ambition outstrips action

It is not as if nobody has mentioned global warming to civic authorities across Europe. Legislation in France, for instance, requires all major cities to have both a mitigation plan and an adaptation plan in place by the close of 2012. Right now, the scientists report, 14 French cities out of 35 have neither.

If the cities were representative of Europe, then on this showing the European Union would achieve its declared target of a 20 percent reduction in emissions. But this would be a long way short of the 80 percent reduction in emissions now required to keep global average warming to a maximum level of 2°C .

The EU is responsible for an estimated 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the EU has played a significant role in pressing for climate action at a global level. But not all countries within the EU have a uniform approach. And there remains a gap between declared ambition and civic action.

“Not all cities with high ambitions lie in countries with a national target as seen in the Netherlands. Likewise, an ambitious national target is no guarantee of an ambitious urban target. Every country analyzed that has a nationally agreed target has cities without a GHG emission reduction target,” the researchers say

Tim Radford is a reporter for Climate News Network. Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.