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Assessing risks and vulnerability to climate change

2.2 Risks and vulnerabilities in European sectors and regions

Observed temperature rises and changing precipitation patterns are already affecting various areas in Europe, making them vulnerable to different weather events. In many regions and sectors in Europe, impact and vulnerability assessments have already been performed, providing an analysis of the expected impacts, risks and the capacity of a region or sector to cope in the face of climate change. This section provides access to key vulnerability assessments and guidance, that have already been produced, as a first step in assessing vulnerability to future climate change.

Vulnerability assessment is more than measuring potential harm using information about climate impacts. It includes an assessment of the region's or sector's ability to adapt. Within the context of climate change, the IPCC defines vulnerability to climate change as the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity. Often climate change is not the only cause of vulnerability. Humans can increase their vulnerability through the urbanisation of flood (coastal) plains, by deforestation of hill slopes or by building up assets in risk-prone areas.

The assessment of vulnerability to existing climate variability and extremes is a necessary starting point for any adaptation. Assessment of past weather events, for example heavy rain or extreme temperatures, and analysis of consequent responses can help provide insights into successful or ineffective initiatives. Lessons learned from such exercises can be used as a basis for designing climate change adaptation plans. In order to perform a sound vulnerability assessment, much information has to be collected and assessed. This includes analysis of past and current weather trends, future climate change and uncertainty.

There are many vulnerability indicators, but most of them do not strictly follow the above definition, because adaptive capacity is often difficult to determine. Most vulnerability indicators are effectively impact indicators measuring the effect of climate change on the socio-ecological system.

There are various methods to analyse climate change vulnerabilities or risks. A common definition for the analysis of the risk of a natural hazard is:

Risk of the hazard = Expected damage of the hazard x Probability of the hazard occurring.

In the case of climate change projections, considerable complexities arise in calculation of the risk function. These are associated with assigning probability to certain climate change scenarios and with making assumptions about the impacts of future socio-economic development.

Given the differences in defining and applying vulnerability and risk assessments, CLIMATE-ADAPT does not enforce a strict vulnerability definition and presents a broad overview of vulnerability and natural hazard risk assessments in this section. In addition CLIMATE-ADAPT provides access to guidance for conducting a vulnerability assessment.

Vulnerability guidance has been developed for different purposes and user groups. Lessons differ and no agreed methodology currently exists. Recommendations from existing assessments include:

  • Make a clear distinction between the academic and the political aspects of the assessment.
  • Involve the potential users in all methodological and analytical choices that will affect the outcome.
  • Keep vulnerability indicators simple, transparent and easy to communicate.
  • Provide users with all available information, but let them decide what to use and how it should be weighed.
  • Be explicit about the purpose of the vulnerability assessment and how it will be used, for example:
    • To identify hotspots for further detailed analysis
    • To raise awareness of the problem causing vulnerability
    • To improve understanding of the dynamics of a system
    • To inform plans and decisions to reduce vulnerability
    • To compare and prioritisevulnerable systems or locations
  • A vulnerability assessment is a step towards adaptation planning that can be time consuming. Other steps, like the assessment and implementation of adaptation options, will also require resources and should not be overlooked.

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