This article was first published on EurActiv on 24 February 2021.
From now on, ‘just resilience’ will be a guiding concept for climate adaptation in Europe. The entire Commission, all EU institutions and EU member states will need to take note.
As strategies go, this one is pretty good. It observes the EU’s principle of subsidiarity by not getting in the way of what is already happening at local, regional and national levels. And yet the EU Adaptation Strategy raises the profile of adaptation to climate change as a key element of the European Green Deal and identifies opportunities for the EU to advance adaptation at all levels.
But the strategy does more than that. For the first time, the EU recognises that adaptation – like mitigation – creates winners and losers. It recognizes that we should not just protect ourselves against the impact of heat waves, windstorms, floods or droughts, but that we should do so justly.
Bringing justice to adaptation
Compensating workers who lose their jobs, creating opportunities for young people, assuming responsibility for cleaning up the polluting mess left behind from coal mines – policymakers in the EU and elsewhere have begun to address the justice dimension of phasing out fossil fuels. Indeed, that’s what the Union’s Just Transition Mechanism and its €40 billion fund have been designed for.
In the context of adaptation to climate change, justice has received much less attention. But here too, justice matters, and not only for seafront property owners wishing to be compensated if a giant sea wall were to block their view. First and foremost, just resilience is about addressing fundamental inequalities in society, and about protecting the weakest and most vulnerable.
For example, just resilience may mean revisiting public authorities’ guidance on how to deal with heatwaves – heeding a lesson learned from the 2003 summer heatwave that scorched Europe, and in particular France.
Then, a disproportionately high number of elderly people died in Paris and other big cities because they lived in buildings poorly equipped to brace off the heat. Moreover, they were not given any guidance on how to adjust their daily routines to survive in the sweltering heat.
Or it may mean designing flood evacuation plans in such a way that people living in the most at-risk areas, especially those who are poor and have no car or money for petrol, aren’t overlooked – a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
How the EU’s coffee connections prove the point
But the laudable aspiration for just resilience must extend beyond Europe. That is because, as the EU Adaptation Strategy itself notes, the EU and the rest of the world are inescapably intertwined.
Coffee offers a case in point. EU citizens are among those in the world drinking the most coffee. On average, each of us imports just above 5kg of coffee beans per year. Coffee production happens to be highly sensitive to climate change. The global area suitable for coffee production could halve as a result of it.
Almost one third of the coffee imported into the EU comes from Brazil. If Brazilian coffee production declined, roasters and retailers in Sweden, Germany or Italy will take a hit. But they can adapt by changing or diversifying their supply.
The hit will be far more painful for smallholder farmers in Brazil, who rarely have unemployment insurance, or a financial buffer to draw on in dire straits. They face the double whammy of climate change and the adverse effects of adaptation decisions by European importers. And they have much less of a public voice than Polish miners.
Just resilience looks across borders
If the EU truly aspires to just resilience, its institutions cannot leave it to coffee traders and roasters to manage climate risks within their supply chains. They would likely cancel contracts or sell assets in an effort to reduce their own exposure. In turn, smallholder farmers would lose their livelihoods.
This means that, for the EU to deliver on its Adaptation Strategy and create just resilience, the Commission as a whole will have to sign on to the idea. Climate adaptation cannot be the exclusive domain of the Directorate-General for Climate Action.
Take trade as an example. The word ‘trade’ rarely crops up in the strategy. But it is DG Trade that has the mandate to negotiate trade agreements (such as the EU–Mercosur Free Trade Agreement), including the sustainability chapters in those agreements.
Other DGs, such as those for Agriculture and Rural Development, Health and Food Safety, and Mobility and Transport, have a similar role to play in managing both domestic and cross-border climate risks.
Just resilience is an exciting new vision that adds much value and promise to the EU Adaptation Strategy and the Green Deal. It is now up to a broad range of actors, in Brussels and beyond, to make that vision reality.