Bridging the Climate Gap: European Cities Put to the Test in Groundbreaking Urban Study

Climate adaptation plans in European cities are improving, but there is still a long way to go

In a groundbreaking effort to confront the ever-escalating challenge of climate change, researchers from Reckien et al., 2023 have unleashed a comprehensive study scrutinising the strides made by 327 European cities since 2005 in their pursuit of urban climate adaptation. The study's ambitious framework revolves around six key principles, acting as a measuring yardstick for the cities' adaptation plans. From meticulous fact-finding to robust societal participation, these principles culminate in the innovative ADAptation plan Quality Assessment (ADAQA) indices, a powerful tool that promises to reshape the way city governments approach and evaluate the effectiveness of their climate adaptation blueprints.

Overall, it was found that half of the cities surveyed have an adaptation plan and that the quality of these plans significantly increased between 2005 and 2020. The current climate adaptation plans seem to be best at providing detailed adaptation measures and defining clear goals. The plans have become more comprehensive and have begun to consider the impacts of climate change adaptation on vulnerable demographic groups, including the young, elderly and those with a low socio-economic status. However, the current focus gives greater importance to the impacts and risks for vulnerable sectors and industries, rather than vulnerable citizens.


Despite the progress being made, the quality of existing plans is low in many of the cities included in the study. Generally speaking, the average quality score of the adaptation plans in European cities is around a third of what it could potentially be, considering the six attributes mentioned previously. Some of the weaker aspects indicated by the study were in regard to public participation during the drafting phase of the plan, as well as a lack of monitoring and evaluation following its creation.


The authors emphasise the fact that inadequate climate adaptation planning could pose as many risks as the impacts of climate change itself. City governments could employ the use of the ADAQA indices to track how their climate adaptation plans develop over time to identify areas for improvement. Furthermore, barriers and enablers to ways of more rapidly and efficiently improving the quality of these plans are also revealed through the proposed indices. If highly vulnerable urban areas are to adapt in the face of climate change, tools such as the indices mentioned here will be invaluable in encouraging collective learning and knowledge transfer between cities.

Building on the findings from the European study, subsequent research by Pietrapertosa et al., 2023 focused more specifically on the climate adaptation policy of 9 countries of the European Mediterranean, namely Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. The Mediterranean region is experiencing changing temperature and precipitation patterns due to anthropogenic climate change at twice the rate of the global average, accompanied by a myriad of other impacts including drought and desertification. As such, the study aimed to take a closer look at how the European Mediterranean is tackling these issues through climate change planning at the national, regional and local scales.


Of the countries assessed, only France has national regulations requiring both regional and municipal governments to draft climate change adaptation plans. Similarly, Greece and Portugal have imposed the mandatory establishment of regional adaptation plans, although these are not required at the city scale. The presence of a national adaptation strategy or plan seems to positively influence climate change planning at the regional scale. This has important implications for climate change policy in the Euro-Mediterranean, since the obligation to draft such plans is key to ensuring that the impacts of climate change are considered by regional public authorities and that adaptation plans are tailored to each region's needs.


In regard to the local scale, only 22 of the 73 cities surveyed had local climate change adaptation plans. The majority of these were in France, whereas Italy has made the least effort in developing adaption policy at the local scale and Rome is the only capital city of the Euro-Mediterranean cities surveyed that has no local climate adaptation plan. Regarding the municipalities that have implemented plans, almost all of them strongly consider the impacts of variation in urban temperature and precipitation, with many also addressing the topics of drought, flooding and landslides. At the municipal level, many plans acknowledge the importance of green space, urban vegetation and nature-based solutions, as well as improving grey infrastructure, such as drainage systems.


These studies have shown that there is great variability in the degree of action being taken across the European landscape in response to climate change planning. Due to the vulnerability of European cities and especially the Mediterranean region, all levels of government, from national to municipal, must act to draft and implement policies that address the plethora of impacts already being observed.