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Climate change response in Europe: what’s the reality? Analysis of adaptation and mitigation plans from 200 urban areas in 11 countries


Urban areas are pivotal to global adaptation and mitigation efforts. But how do cities actually perform in terms of climate change response? This study sheds light on the state of urban climate change adaptation and mitigation planning across Europe. Europe is an excellent test case given its advanced environmental policies and high urbanization. We performed a detailed analysis of 200 large and medium-sized cities across 11 European countries and analysed the cities’ climate change adaptation and mitigation plans. We investigate the regional distribution of plans, adaptation and mitigation foci and the extent to which planned greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions contribute to national and international climate objectives. To our knowledge, it is the first study of its kind as it does not rely on self-assessment (questionnaires or social surveys). Our results show that 35 % of European cities studied have no dedicated mitigation plan and 72 % have no adaptation plan. No city has an adaptation plan without a mitigation plan. One quarter of the cities have both an adaptation and a mitigation plan and set quantitative GHG reduction targets, but those vary extensively in scope and ambition. Furthermore, we show that if the planned actions within cities are nationally representative the 11 countries investigated would achieve a 37 % reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, translating into a 27 % reduction in GHG emissions for the EU as a whole. However, the actions would often be insufficient to reach national targets and fall short of the 80 % reduction in GHG emissions recommended to avoid global mean temperature rising by 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

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  1. 1.

    The terms ‘city’ and ‘urban area’ are used interchangeably, though definition might vary across countries. We use data from the Urban Audit, which also refers to “cities” (Eurostat 2013).

  2. 2.

    The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) is a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change through action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  3. 3.

    Even when legislation requires the development of plans—the legally mandatory Territorial Climate and Energy Plans (Plans Climat-Energie Territoriaux or TCEPs) of the Grenelle de l’Environnement in France are a recent example, these can take a while to appear. During 2012, 6 out of 35 French cities in our sample developed a mitigation plan and four of these also developed an adaptation plan, which leaves 14 cities out of 35 without any plan at the end of 2012. Yet, legislation requires all major cities in France to have developed both a mitigation and an adaptation plan by the end of 2012.

  4. 4.

    In one case, the city of Moers, in Germany, a sustainable area management plan was produced—betwixt a land-use plan and an adaptation plan—through the Local Agenda 21 process in cooperation with the city before the official mitigation plan.

  5. 5.

    The EU2020 targets are specified in the EU’s climate and energy package—a set of binding legislation which aims to ensure the European Union meets its ambitious climate and energy targets for 2020. These targets, known as the “20-20-20” targets (or 3 × 20 targets), set three key objectives for 2020: 1) A 20 % reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels; 2) Raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20 %; 3) A 20 % improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency. Agreement on the package was reached in December 2008; it became European law in 2009.


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Research undertaken for this paper was conducted as part of the European Science Foundation funded COST Action network Integrated assessment technologies to support the sustainable development of urban areas (TU0902). D.R. is funded by the German Research Foundation (RE 2927/2-1). R.D. is funded by an Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council Fellowship (EP/H003630/1). H.O. would like to acknowledge Estonia’s Ministry of Education for providing resources with the grant SF0180060s09. We thank S. Schärf, K. Oinonen, S. Reiter, V. D’Alonzo and E. Feliu for their contributions to data gathering.

Author contribution

The study and manuscript preparation was led by D.R. The initial analysis was initiated by D.R. and J.F. who also led the statistical analysis. All co-authors contributed towards data acquisition in their respective countries, interpretation of results, and manuscript preparation. Figure 1 was produced by J.F. Figure 2 was produced by D.R. Figure 3 was developed by D.R. and produced with S. De G.H. R.D. is chair and D.R. was vice-chair of the COST Action network that supported this research and enabled the necessary international coordination.

Competing financial interest statement

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to D. Reckien.

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Reckien, D., Flacke, J., Dawson, R.J. et al. Climate change response in Europe: what’s the reality? Analysis of adaptation and mitigation plans from 200 urban areas in 11 countries. Climatic Change 122, 331–340 (2014).

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  • Emission Reduction
  • Climate Change Adaptation
  • Reduction Target
  • Adaptation Plan
  • Emission Reduction Target