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Vulnerability and adaptation of human-environment systems to climate change

The climate change vulnerability of a particular region depends on the interaction of a very wide range of factors. Geographic specificity can influence some of those factors, and the GEOSPECS case studies show that geographic specificity makes many areas more vulnerable to climate change impacts overall. This has been confirmed by research, much of which was recently compiled in the ESPON CLIMATE project (ESPON & IRPUD, 2011). This concluded that the overall hotspots of physical impacts are almost all located on or close to coasts, especially at river mouths. The assessment of the combined economic impacts of climate change shows that the south is more vulnerable, since large parts of Southern Europe are dependent on (summer) tourism, but also agriculture, which are projected to be negatively impacted due to temperature increase and precipitation decrease. Given that tourism plays a particular role in many island and coastal territories in Southern Europe (as also confirmed by the GEOSPECS case studies), they will be particularly hard hit. The Alps as a premier tourism region are also identified as a hotspot, which mainly due to projected decreases in snow cover. Regarding the aggregated potential impacts of climate change, the following regions emerge as hotspots: the South of Europe, i.e. the large agglomerations and summer tourist resorts along the coast; mountains; but also the densely populated Dutch/Belgian coastline.

The concentration of physical structures and economic activities along parts of the European coastline accounts for a high damage potential, as the coasts face risks from sea level rise, storms, erosion and inundations. The intensely urbanised Belgian coast is a prime example of a region at risk.

For the ORs, the main impacts are heat-related - decreasing water availability and increasing water stress - as well as increasing hazard potentials related to extreme climate events (tropical cyclones, inundation, heavy rainfalls, floods, etc). The Canaries are an example of a region that already faces difficulties in accessing sufficient freshwater supplies. In addition, much of the settlement and economic activity is concentrated in the coastal zones. As the ORs are generally less developed than mainland Europe, their adaptive capacity is accordingly lower.

For mountain areas, climate change will impact on the annual days of snow cover - for all of the GEOSPECS case studies of mountain areas, a decrease of up to 30 days and more is predicted. This, in combination with increased rainfall and more extreme weather events (and glacier ablation in higher areas), will increase risks from natural hazards, and also affect water supply downstream. Mountain areas relying on winter tourism will be negatively affected in economic terms. For every ?C increase in temperature, the snow line will, on average, rise by about 150 m in elevation. In the Tatra and West Stara Planina case studies, for instance, major investments in ski infrastructures are planned, something that does not appear sustainable in the face of climate change.

A traditionally strong role of natural resources and the primary sector in regional economies is a common characteristic of many SPAs. Since agriculture and forestry are in general very climate-dependent sectors, this makes such territories, in principle, more climate-sensitive than regions with a more diversified economic structure.

Islands will be mainly affected by sea level rise, storms and inundations. In the case of southern islands (for instance Sicily), global warming may negatively impact the economically important tourism sector, when temperatures become uncomfortable in the peak summer months. In addition, Sicily already faces difficulty in accessing sufficient freshwater, a challenge that will increase with climate change.

Border areas do not in general face specific climate change impacts, but their adaptive capacity may be reduced in cases where cross-border cooperation is still weak.

As many GEOSPECS categories are associated with high levels of biodiversity (particularly ORs, mountains, islands and coasts), these - often unique - ecosystems are at particular risk of being lost altogether, as species cannot adapt to climate change fast enough.

These findings are just some samples from the extensive quantitative analysis that was undertaken for GEOSPECS. The entire analysis can be found in the Draft Final Scientific Report, downloadable on the ESPON website.

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