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Projected warming and water scarcity particularly negative in southern Europe

  • Projected warming and water scarcity particularly negative in southern Europe

Climate change is expected to lead to a decline in agricultural yields in Europe, especially in southern countries, due to a combination of higher temperatures and drought. Those are conclusions of climate scientists in the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, informs Associated Press.

Warming in Europe is expected to continue to rise faster than the global mean. The impacts projected for southern regions of the continent are largely negative, including an increased need for cooling, increased water demands, losses in agricultural production and water scarcity. Meanwhile, in northern countries short-term benefits are anticipated due to increased crop yields and forest growth. In fact, observed climate change has led to a northward movement of agro-climatic zones in Europe and earlier onset of the growing season.

The risks related to water scarcity will likely have impacts beyond the water sector, affecting agriculture and livestock farming, but also energy (hydropower and cooling requirements of thermal power plants) and industry. According to the report, those risks can become severe in western central Europe, and to a much larger extent in southern Europe, based on projections on drought damage, population and sectors exposed, and increased water resources exploitation.

Zoom into the Iberian Peninsula, now in the middle of a dry spell that started in November 2021. In Spain, the driest January in the past 20 years has depleted reservoirs to below 45% of their capacity, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. The meteorological conditions threaten this season’s crops. To put it in perspective, it is a worrying figure, compared with the average for the last 10 years which was 58%. With a dry Mediterranean climate, Spain is no foreign to droughts, and rural communities have historically paraded sculptures of saints to ask for rain. The country experiences recurring meteorological droughts (rainfall deficit) every few years, with recent ones in 2017 and 2012. Recent rainfall this week may help ease dry conditions for now; nevertheless, the trend is for the magnitude of droughts to increase in southern Europe.

The IPCC report reminds us it is time to invest in adaptation, and explores the effectiveness, limitations and lead time of different pathways to do it under different levels of additional warming, noting that at high warming a mix of most measures will be needed.

To reduce agricultural risks, measures include changes in crops, sowing and harvest dates, and soil management, which can reduce risk at low warming. Irrigation is considered a highly effective adaptation option – back to the case of Spain, the arable land devoted to intensive agriculture with irrigation has increased in the country to a quarter of the total in the past few decades. But the ability to adapt using irrigation will be more and more limited by water availability, warns the IPCC. Beyond medium warming, it would have to be combined with other measures to take into account water constraints.

Concerning water scarcity, demand side measures include monitoring and operational management, water savings and efficiency, land cover change, etc.; under medium warming, they would need to be combined with supply measures such as diversification of sources. Water reservoirs and transfers have been widely used but can have distributional impacts and when used for irrigation they intensify dependency on water. In terms of diversification of sources, the report highlights the effectiveness of desalination and water reuse; it does caution, however, about the long lead time for infrastructure development, and the impact of desalination on the environment, including its energy demand. 

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