Europe steps up climate change adaptation in wake of floods and heatwaves


Technical adaptation vs nature-based solutions

Climate adaptation can generally be divided into two categories: technical adaptation and nature-based solutions.

The first category involves using technology or engineering to help infrastructure or people cope better with or be better protected against the impacts of extreme weather. This could include, for instance, physical flood defences to protect houses, power stations or other infrastructure from storm surges or rising sea levels.

The second category of adaptation measures are nature-based solutions. These could include different farming methods to help farmers and their crops suffer less from droughts, heatwaves and downpours, or planting trees to give shade and reduce the air temperature during periods of intense heat.

Adapting infrastructure

All types of infrastructure are vulnerable to extreme weather. Super strong winds, hurricanes or tornadoes can destroy power systems, taking electricity offline and leading to blackouts. A 2019 World Bank report revealed that between 2010 and 2017, 37 per cent of power outages in Europe were caused by natural shocks and climate change.

Transport networks can be halted by flooding, heatwaves or even drought. In the summer of 2022, deliveries across Europe, notably those related to the steel and chemical industries in Germany, were slowed by a lack of water in the Rhine. Flooding and drought can also impact water systems, leading to a shortage of clean drinking water, while storms can knock out telecommunications infrastructure. Climate adaptation measures can help reduce the negative effects of these events.

Flooding in the UK in the summer 2007 led to half a million people being left temporarily without energy with knock-on effects for water distribution, transport, communication and health care, at a cost of over £3.2 billion. In response, adaptation measures were taken to protect National Grid substations at a high risk of flooding.

Sponge cities were dreamt up by the Chinese urban designer Yu Konjian after flooding wreaked havoc on dozens of cities in his home country. His idea was to increase greenery in urban areas to strengthen natural absorption and drainage and reduce the risk of flooding. Various towns and cities in Europe are starting to see how they can adopt such strategies. One example is Ober-Grafendorf in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. In recent years, the municipality has suffered from more frequent and more intense heavy rains, alternating with worsening periods of drought. Excess surface water runoff from sealed surface areas has repeatedly caused flooding, including from sewers and wastewater treatment. At the same time, more hot and dry periods mean higher costs for irrigating and maintaining urban greenery. The region has decided to solve these two problems together, by replacing sealed surfaces with vegetation to increase drainage, reduce flooding, and keep more moisture in the soil.

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