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Cost of climate change in Europe could reach 4 % of GDP

A large piece of ice collapses off of the edge of the Glacier Perito Moreno in Argentina, South America. Image courtesy of Calyponte, Wikimedia Commons
A large piece of ice collapses off of the edge of the Glacier Perito Moreno in Argentina, South America. Image courtesy of Calyponte, Wikimedia Commons

If no new policy measures are adopted to combat global warming, the cost of climate change in Europe could reach almost 4 % of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the European Union by the end of the century.

That’s according to the EU-funded ClimateCost project, which said for example that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions could mean thousands of Europeans are affected by coastal and river flooding.

ClimateCost has estimated that if there is no new policy action, on average 345 000 people every year could be hit by coastal and river flooding in Europe by the 2050s as rising water breaches riverbanks and sea defences during stormy weather. This figure rises to over half a million people each year by the 2080s, with economic costs exceeding EUR 100 billion per year.

There are also additional risks that climate change could lead to the breaching of major tipping points, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet or rapid loss of the Greenland ice sheet, leading to extreme sea level rises. This could increase the economic impact on coastal zones six fold by the end of the century.

Mitigation efforts

‘These economic estimates give the context and justification for policy action, providing information on the costs of inaction – the costs of doing nothing – and also the economic benefits of mitigation policy,’ said Paul Watkiss, from Paul Watkiss Associates in the UK, one of the leading researchers on the ClimateCost project.

Over the past decade, total financial losses from river flooding in Europe were about EUR 5 billion per year on average, said Watkiss. Short-term effects of climate change could increase the costs of annual river-related floods to up to EUR 20 billion per year by the 2030s for the whole of Europe, according to ClimateCost figures published in 2011 and 2012. Central and Eastern Europe could be hit particularly hard because of the larger relative impact of river flooding already in these regions due to the extensive river systems which flow through them.

‘It is valuable for the public to understand that climate change is likely to have tangible effects on them, their children, and subsequent generations.’

Dr Alistair Hunt, the coordinator of ECONADAPT

Climate change is set to continue due to historically high greenhouse gas emissions by humans, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, a low-carbon policy by governments could help to mitigate the effects of climate change, and reduce the effects of pollution in Europe's overcrowded cities.

‘Following a low-carbon path would increase life expectancy in Europe and reduce the economic costs of air pollution,’ said Watkiss. ‘The air quality benefits of this low-carbon path alone were estimated at savings of EUR 48 billion to EUR 99 billion per year by 2050.’

Updated climate change models

ClimateCost researchers drew their conclusions by combining current data with updated versions of computer models widely used in European policy making, which looked at the change in climate up to the year 2100. The models were updated by including different scenarios based on whether or not governments took measures to institute further cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

Total coastal damage cost for each EU country.Total coastal damage cost (2005 prices, not discounted) for each EU country with no adaptation. Numbers reported for A1B scenario (represents a world where the 2°C global warming goal is not met) and include the combined effects of sea-level rise and socio-economic change (select the graph to open in new window). Graph courtesy of ClimateCost.

Now they're being used by the new IMPACT2C project, which is looking to provide new estimates for the impact and economic cost of climate change in Europe if global warming is limited to the international goal of no more than 2 degrees Celsius, relative to Western European pre-industrial levels.

ClimateCost has also formed the basis for further research looking at alternative responses to the cost of climate change. That includes the new EU-funded ECONADAPT project, which started in October 2013 and is developing improved methods for the economic evaluation of costs, and the benefits of policies and measures to adapt to climate change. The project hopes to use its results to help economists, private sector organisations, and policymakers in deciding how to react to climate change.

‘It is valuable for the public to understand that climate change is likely to have tangible effects on them, their children, and subsequent generations,’ said project coordinator Dr Alistair Hunt, from the University of Bath, UK. ‘Using economic metrics, for example effects on GDP, makes this more possible.’

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