The effects of climate change and the need to adapt

From the scientific standpoint, there is no longer any doubt that climate change is taking place. A rise in average temperatures, particularly during the summers, along with increased winter precipitation has been recorded in Central Europe over the past century. This warming trend will continue in the 21st century. In Germany, the temperature rise is expected to be most pronounced in the north of the country (with the exception of coastal regions) and in the pre-alpine region. The change in precipitation levels will be most noticeable in the central low mountain ranges and the coastal regions. There will be more hot weather in the summer and fewer days with freezing temperatures. Depending on the climate scenario, the mean annual temperature in Germany is expected to increase by between 2.5 and 3.5 degrees Celsius during the 21st century.

Global warming during the 20th century has already begun to affect ecological systems. The rise in sea level, the earlier onset of the vegetation period and the melting of permafrost in Siberia are just a few examples of the effects of climate change. There is genuine concern that extreme weather such as storms, flooding, drought and heat waves will become more severe and more frequent. Scientists are still debating this issue, but the cost of loss and damage resulting from extreme weather events has already increased dramatically.

Climate risks for the utilities sector

Compared to the consequences for eco-systems, agriculture and natural resources, the effects of climate change on utilities are addressed only briefly in the Assessment Report issued by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 2007. This is due to the fact that research in this area has only gotten underway relatively recently. As a result, many of the risks cited are rather speculative or only supported by gray literature. Risks include the rising costs of maintaining infrastructure including rail and road networks, bridges, ports and the power distribution grid which will be increasingly at risk due to the change in statics of extreme weather events. Moreover, reductions in service resulting from weather events including blackouts and delays in the transportation network pose a risk which utilities, service providers and society increasingly need to address.

Initial approach to adaptation policy

To date there are few examples of explicit adaptation policies in the OECD countries. At the national level, initial adaptation strategies have been developed for example by the UK, Finland, France and Spain. The German adaptation strategy put forward in 2008 essentially contains a summary of potential risks and has initiated an ongoing consultation process for the next few years. It also addresses political duties such as changes to planning, environmental, energy supply and energy security legislations, which are important to the utility industry, and it cites the need for consideration in public planning, the protection of society from natural hazards and the support of insurance solutions.

At the European Level, the White Paper on Climate Change Adaptation, issued by the EU in 2009, in conjunction with the accompanying consultation process has resulted in some movement. A European strategy is not expected before 2013, however, and it seems unlikely that it will find expression in a specific EU directive. Instead, the issue will presumably be embedded into a number of other policy areas.