This story spotlights some of the Big Facts on Europe, and is part of a special blog series to complement the new Big Facts infographics website.
As any other region of the world, Europe will feel the numerous impacts of climate change; from erratic weather to crop failures to increased temperatures. Although Europe is the smallest continent and covers a relatively small area of land, the impacts will be far from uniform, and thus the adaptation measures necessary will vary from north to south. In the south, higher temperatures will increase the risk of drought, whereas in the north and north-west, increased precipitation might lead to flooding.
A shrinking population that is overweight not underweight
Unlike many other regions, the population of Europe does not suffer from undernourishment in any significant manner. The real problem is “overnutrition” and its related impacts. According to the World Health Organization, 54.8% [53.1-56.6%] of Europen adults are overweight, and what is more, 21.9% [20.7-23.2%] are obese.
Another distinction separating Europe from most other regions is population changes. The population of Europe will not grow by 2050. Already, the European population is growing very slowly and it will in fact peak within a few years and then decline steadily towards 2050 and 2100, meaning that the population of Europe will constitute an ever smaller part of the global population.
A diet rich in meat and dairy leaves room to reduce emissions
Western Europe is the only region where GHG emissions from agriculture are projected to decrease by 2020. This is associated with the adoption of a number of climate-specific and other environmental policies in the European Union, as well as economic constraints on agriculture (Smith et al, 2007). However, the current level of emissions from the food chain is high; contributing roughly 31% of EU total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, partly the result of a diet rich in meat and dairy products. Such items contribute more than 40% of total food chain emissions, or about 13% of all EU GHGs (Garnett, 2009: 53).
Food waste, especially amongst consumers, also contributes a significant amount of GHGs, and policies to eliminate food waste will be an important part of lowering emissions from the food sector.
Mitigation potential to be found after the farm-gates
In high-income regions such as Europe, nearly half of the emissions from the food chain occur beyond the farm gate, and in Europe, there is a high potential to reduce emissions by focusing on areas such as transporting, processing, cooling, and pre-cooking.
Another area that needs addressing is the livestock sector. Because of Europe’s meat and dairy rich diet, the livestock sector is one of the largest contributors of GHG emissions in Europe. The GHG mitigation potential from the livestock sector in Europe is estimated to be 101-377 MtCO2e per year, that’s 12-61% of total EU-27 livestock sector emissions in 2007 (Bellarby et al., 2012).
Related to consumption choices, reducing food waste will be an important mitigation strategy. Per capita food loss in Europe is estimated to be around 280 kg/year, of which more than a third (95 kg/year) is wasted at the level of consumers, resulting in a significant amount of GHGs and generating a significant potential for reduction.
People already feeling the heat
In the summer of 2003, Europe experienced a particularly extreme climate event, with average temperatures 6°C above normal and precipitation deficits of up to 300 mm. This had catastrophic impacts on people and crops, and resulted in up to 70,000 deaths across Europe (Robine et al. 2008). A study by Gornall et al. (2010) estimates that such summer temperatures in Europe are now 50% more likely to occur as a result of anthropogenic climate change; unless adaptive measures are taken, this could have severely negative impacts on people across the continent.
A mixed impact on food production
The impact of climate change will be increasingly visible in Europe in the coming years. Predicted changes include: sea level rise across most of Europe’s coasts; a decrease of river flows in southern/eastern Europe, an increase in droughts and flood events; the northward expansion of areas suitable for several crops; earlier flowering and harvest dates in cereals; and an increase in the number of forest fires in the Mediterranean (EEA, 2012).
As can be seen in the Big Facts section on crop production, climate change will have both negative and positive impacts on global fisheries. And in the northern European and Arctic seas, that impact is mostly positive. By 2055, under a high-emissions scenario (in which greenhouse gas concentrations double by the year 2100), the average catch potential in Nordic countries (such as Norway, Greenland and Iceland) would increase by 18-45%; and in the Alaska and Russia Pacific by around 20% (Cheung et al., 2010).
In Southern Europe, climate change is projected to worsen conditions (high temperatures and drought) in a region already vulnerable to climate variability, which could in turn have a negative impact on crop production. In Northern Europe, the effects could be more mixed, including increased crop yields and increased forest growth. However, over time, its negative impacts (more frequent winter floods, endangered ecosystems and increasing ground instability) are likely to outweigh its benefits (Alcamo et al., 2007).
Adaptation across the continent
As the crop suitability range is predicted to move northwards, European farmers will need to grow different crops. As can be seen from the graph below, increases in climate-related crop yields are expected in northern Europe, while reductions may occur in the south.
As climate change impacts will vary in nature between the different regions of Europe, adaptation measures have to be taken at national, regional and local levels and using different tools to address different types of impacts These include 'Grey' actions: technological and engineering solutions; 'Green' actions: ecosystem-based approaches that use the multiple services of nature; and 'Soft' actions: managerial, legal and policy approaches that alter human behaviour and styles of governance (EEA 2013).
This short post is by no means an exhaustive overview of the various issues related to climate change and agriculture in Europe. I invite you to dig deeper into the various facts and graphics on the site and explore the differences and similarities between the different regions. In each of the sections, numerous references are given, should you want to explore a topic further.
Have Your Say
What will it take for Europe to reduce its emissions from agriculture and food waste, and make its agriculture more resilient? Leave your ideas in the comments section below or send us an email.