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Coastal areas

Mallorca, Llubí, Spain
Image credits: Stefan Kunze on Unsplash, 2015

Key messages

  • Climate change is expected to have severe impacts on coastal areas in particular due to sea level rise, storms and storm surges, but also on saltwater intrusion into coastal ecosystems, increased water temperatures and ocean acidification. Ultimately, these effects can cause the loss of multiple ecosystem services provided by coastal areas, of environmental, economic, social, and cultural value for many stakeholders and economic sectors.
  • The EU Policy framework in place to tackle the impacts of climate change to coastal areas include cross-cutting instruments, such as Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Maritime Spatial Planning. Other EU directives directly relevant to make coastal zones climate resilient, are the Floods Directive, and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
  • The River Basin Management Plans of the Water Framework Directive could potentially offer future options to measure the progress of adaptation in coastal areas at EU levels.

Impacts and vulnerabilities

Climate change is expected to have severe impacts on coastal areas in particular due to sea level rise and changes in the frequency and magnitude of severe storms and related storm-surges. This can cause flooding, coastal erosion and the loss of low-lying areas that host habitats of high environmental value as well as human settlements and infrastructures. Sea level rise will also induce or increase the risk of saltwater intrusion, further endangering coastal ecosystems. Moreover, expected rises in water temperatures and ocean acidification will contribute to a restructuring of coastal ecosystems, with effects on ocean circulation and biogeochemical cycling. Ultimately, these effects can cause the loss of multiple ecosystem services provided by coastal areas, of environmental, economic, social, and cultural value for many stakeholders and economic sectors.

The impacts of climate change worsen problems that coastal areas are already facing, due to the increasing urbanisation of the coasts and to the presence of infrastructures and multiple human activities, both on land and at sea. Such non-climate-related driving forces interact with climate-related drivers determining the overall vulnerability of natural and human systems of coastal areas.


Policy framework

The 2021 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, in order to make the adaptation process smarter, recognises the importance of closing the gap on climate impacts and resilience in all sectors, including coastal areas. Within the objective of making adaptation more systemic, the Adaptation Strategy promotes Nature-Based Solutions (NbS) and ecosystem-based approaches as essential measures to sustain healthy ecosystems against the threats of climate change. For coastal areas, this implies, for example, restoring wetlands and coastal ecosystems. Those approaches make use of blue-green infrastructures as multipurpose, and ‘no-regret’ effective solutions strengthening coastal defence against the impacts of climate change. Carbon removal benefits offered by restored coastal and marine ecosystems is also recognised within the Strategy. In this regard, the Commission promotes new certification mechanisms that will enable robust monitoring and quantification of carbon removal climate benefits offered by many NbS in coastal areas.

The EU cross-sector policies and instruments relevant for the climate resilience of coastal areas include Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) and Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP).

ICZM promotes a strategic and integrated approach to coastal zone management aiming to benefit from synergies and level out inconsistencies across different policies and sectors. The strategic approach required by the EU 2002 Recommendation on ICZM includes the overarching principle of ecosystem approach to preserve coastal integrity and functioning, against the threats posed by climate change. The 2014 EU Directive on MSP recommends Members States to take into account land-sea interactions in the development of their MSP and to take into consideration long-term changes due to climate change in the overall planning process.

Other EU directives relevant for the sustainable management of coastal areas in the light of adaptation to climate change are:

These directives have to be implemented coherently with requirements of the Water Framework Directive, that establishes a common framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater. 


Improving the knowledge base

The risks in coastal areas associated with sea level rise for human and ecological systems have been globally assessed in the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate and in the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5 °C.

The European Atlas of European Seas is a web-based tool, providing interactive and diversified information on natural and socio-economic features in the coastal and marine regions of Europe. It also includes information about ICZM projects involved in the former OURCOAST initiative.

Global Extreme Sea Level data and models supporting findings of most recent studies on coastal flooding are available in the LISCoAsT (Large scale Integrated Sea-level and Coastal Assessment Tool) repository of the Joint Research Centre data catalogue. The JRC also ran the PESETA projects, where the impact of climate change on coastal systems was in scope since PESETA I in 2009.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) supports adaptation and mitigation policies of the European Union by providing consistent and authoritative information about climate change. The service allows users to access examples of real applications of its Climate Data Store for several sectors, including coastal areas, demonstrating how climate data can be accessed, transformed and made relevant to address specific climate challenges and climate-related decision-making.

The EEA indicator Extreme sea levels and coastal flooding shows the projected change in the frequency of flooding events in Europe according to two different scenarios, requiring coastal protection to be planned at local or regional level.

A number of research projects supported by different EU programmes have furthermore contributed with knowledge on coastal areas (as for example RISES-AMFAIR). Under the European Research Area for Climate Services, ECLISEA aims to advance coastal climate science concerning sea surface dynamics over the European coasts and seas, producing recommendations and best practices about coastal climate and coastal impact aspects. INSeaPTION aims to co-design and co-develop, together with users, coastal climate services based on state-of-the art sea-level rise, impact, adaptation and transdisciplinary science.

Several EU funded projects contributed to demonstrate the potential of NbS for flood mitigation and coastal resilience (e.g. SARCCADAPTA BLUESADAPTO), providing considerable knowledge and evidence base on this topic, with research efforts especially focussed on small-scale interventions. RECONECT aims to rapidly enhance the European reference framework on NbS for hydro-meteorological risk reduction by demonstrating, referencing, upscaling and exploiting large-scale NbS in rural and natural areas, including coastal zones.


Supporting investment and funding

The EU’s multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2021-27 amounts to €1.21 trillion with an additional €807 billion from the next generation EU recovery instrument. 30% of this budget is earmarked for activities contributing to climate objectives.

Key EU instruments available to support adaptation are:

A comprehensive overview can be found on the EU funding of adaptation measures page.


Supporting the implementation

Coastal cities and local governments have significant authority over land-use policies and regulations so that EU and global initiatives (platforms and networks) connecting local governments can give support in the implementation of adaptation measures. Initiatives such as the Covenant of Mayors for Energy and Climate and C40 (including coastal and delta cities) connect local authorities around the world to collaborate towards a sustainable action on climate change.

The European Natural Water Retention Measures (NWRM) platform supports the implementation of the European Environmental Policy on green infrastructure as a way to contribute to integrated goals dealing with nature and biodiversity conservation and restoration. The NWRM platform covers a wide range of solutions and case studies, some of them are also relevant for coastal areas.


MRE of adaptation

The Floods Directive underlines that climate change leads to greater likelihood and adverse impacts of flood events calling on Member States to address climate change in their Preliminary Flood Risk Assessments and Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMPs) and to address likely climate change impacts on the occurrence of floods in the reviews of their FRMPs. Considering sea level rise and the likely increasing risk of storm surges, flooding is expected to have increasing impacts in coastal areas. According to the latest European Overview of Flood Risk Management Plans, 24 out of 26 Member States considered at least some aspects of climate change in their FRMPs and ten provided strong evidence that climate change impacts were considered. However, only a few Member States described methods to check the effectiveness of measures in the face of climate change scenarios, while several Member States identified measures that address climate change with a no-regret approach.

Climate change, with consideration to flooding, is also included in the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) of the WFD - that also embraces coastal waters- alongside with the assessment of pressures from climate change. In A European Overview of the second River Basin Management Plans, only one third of the Member States are mentioned to have applied specific measures to adapt to climate change.