As the climate crisis intensifies, the impacts of climate change in countries all around the world will increasingly present risks to the EU’s foreign policy, trade agreements and financial interests. These are referred to as cascading or transboundary climate risks.
EU member states focusing on climate adaptation efforts within their frontiers are vulnerable to climate risks that ‘cascade’ and cross borders. Therefore, developing a better understanding of these emerging risks and the actions that can be taken to reduce their impacts is crucial for the EU’s adaptation efforts.
By building different scenarios, CASCADES researchers have illustrated the effects of transboundary climate risks, identifying cascading chains of events, for example how export bans on soy produced in Latin America can lead to food price rises in the EU.
“What could the EU do about transboundary climate risks and whose responsibility is it to address them? This was the red thread that ran throughout our two days of discussion – yielding diverse perspectives on how to strengthen resilience in a polycrisis age.”
Katy Harris, CASCADES researcher and Senior Policy Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute
The UK is integrating climate risks emerging outside of its borders into its assessment processes.
— Cascades (@Cascades_EU) May 9, 2023
Outcomes and implications
The CASCADES project developed and put to the test a series of policy recommendations to manage climate risks originating outside the EU’s borders. At a policy validation workshop in Stockholm, stakeholders were presented with recommendations to better manage the cascading climate risks Europe faces, and to strengthen the impact and legacy of the project.
The policy recommendations’ novelty, relevance, timeliness, feasibility, appropriateness and potential impact were scrutinized by a select group of representatives from the EU Commission, Member States of the European Union, non-EU nations, international organizations, NGOs and the private sector, such as UNEP, OECD, Willis Towers Watson and the World Economic Forum. The group also generated new recommendations through reflection on the project’s findings, drawing from the assembled expertise in the room.
“Reducing price volatility in global food commodity markets will require high levels of cooperation. Government responses during crises, such as subsidizing food or restricting exports when commodity prices rise, might redistribute risks to other countries – it doesn’t help to address the real drivers of the risks, and can make matters worse.”
Magnus Benzie, CASCADES researcher and Senior Policy Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute
“Finance needs to revisit Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to take physical climate risks into account…this will be transformational for the climate adaptation agenda”
— Cascades (@Cascades_EU) May 11, 2023
Reflections on EU governance
Researchers and workshop participants shared their views on the capacities of European institutions to manage climate risks flowing across EU countries.
The difficulties of pricing risk and so providing an economic case for adaptation action outside the EU were discussed, alongside the existing challenges of funding adaptation action. The importance of incentives in creating political will and driving uptake of recommendations was considered in this context. Confusion over, or reluctance to take ownership of cascading risk, was seen as a related stumbling block.
Concern was raised among participants that policy making in Europe can be hampered by inefficiencies and incoherence, lacks an appropriate global perspective, and is poorly suited to managing long-term, complex or uncertain risks. Participants perceived a need to look for best practice beyond the EU and Europe, to other countries and regions who may contribute to this agenda and provide co-leadership. In addition, action by the EU to improve governance of cascading risks needs to take into account that durable and continuous engagement, predictable financing and support for ongoing partnerships will be needed by those engaged.
Is the EU’s “self-focused” approach defensible when climate change impacts others before reaching the EU?
The question of justice and human rights is important when looking at responses to cascading climate risks, and participants emphasised that the CASCADES project must consider the implications of viewing or engaging with countries beyond Europe as ‘sources’ of risk cascade. Steps to prevent harm from this focus would include also considering how risk might cascade outwards from Europe and the unintended consequences of responding to cascades. Some saw many activities by the EU as neo-colonialist, marginalizing the global south, and felt acknowledgement of this could help foster dialogue and cooperation at a global scale.
Policy coherence and the effects of EU policies beyond its borders
Workshop participants felt the EU may inadvertently increase its own risk exposure by acting incoherently in its approach and interaction with other countries.
Development assistance or adaptation finance projects might actually be undermined by the negative effects of EU policies, such as trade policies on agricultural subsidies or restructuring international supply chains (e.g. in response to geopolitical tensions, or as part of a transition to a low carbon economy). For instance, incoherence between the EU’s adaptation and development objectives, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Common Agricultural Policy must be ironed out if the EU is to make a positive contribution to global food system resilience.
For some, locally-led adaptation approaches were considered vital, whatever the geopolitical context, to thwart cascading risks at their source or point of impact.
Locally-led adaptation would, some participants felt, ideally work through indigenous or otherwise well-functioning local governance. Rooting solutions in communities, who have a vested interest in implementing them, means incentives are built-in, and opens ‘new corridors for cooperation’, including via international networks of communities and by bypassing national governments, in some cases.
The cascading nature of impacts go beyond the climate projections predicted and unpacked through models. Participants emphasized the need to acknowledge limits, but also to push for resilience-building measures that are ‘no regret’ in the face of this complexity and uncertainty.
“It’s about helping people to thrive in conditions of great change and uncertainty”
— Cascades (@Cascades_EU) May 17, 2023
The CASCADES project team will produce final sets of recommendations for use in dissemination events in cities across Europe in 2023.
A report on the recommendations is planned for publication in September–October 2023.