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European policies on climate adaptation and health

Climate and health in the key EU policy documents

In the EU, a number of policies address the prevention of impacts from climate change on human health.

The main overall policy framework is the European Green Deal. It sets out a new growth strategy to transform the Union into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy, where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. The European Green Deal also aims to protect, conserve, and enhance the Union’s natural capital, and ‘to protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts’. At the same time, this transition must be just and inclusive, leaving no one behind.

The proposal for the 8th Environment Action Programme to 2030 calls for strengthening the links between environmental (including climate) and health policies, including by ‘monitoring of human health and impacts of and adaptation to climate change’.

EU policies on climate adaptation

Article 5 of the European Climate Law, which entered into force in June 2021, makes adaptation to climate change a legal obligation for EU institutions and Member States, requiring them to ‘ensure continuous progress in enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change in accordance with Article 7 of the Paris Agreement’. Also, Member States’ adaptation policies ‘shall take into account the particular vulnerability of the relevant sectors’, integrate ‘adaptation to climate change in a consistent manner in all policy areas’, and ‘focus, in particular, on the most vulnerable and impacted populations and sectors’.

The European Commission adopted in February 2021 the Communication ‘Forging a climate-resilient Europe – the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change’. It outlines a long-term vision for the EU to become a climate-resilient society, fully adapted to the unavoidable impacts of climate change by 2050, and it also states the need for a deeper understanding of the climate risks for health. A key action under this strategy is the European Climate and Health Observatory.

The European Commission and the European Environment Agency are preparing the first European Climate Risk Assessment (EUCRA). Planned to be published in spring 2024, it will assess major climate change related impacts and risks – including those for public health – in Europe.

EU coordinating activities on health

Under Article 168 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, the primary responsibility for organizing and providing health services and medical care lies with the Member States. EU health policy therefore serves to complement national policies, and to ensure health protection in all EU policies. For example, to strengthen the preparedness and the coordination of responses to health threats, the EU adopted in 2022 Regulation 2022/2371 on serious cross-border threats to health, repealing Decision 1082/2013/EU. It provides the EU with a strong and comprehensive mandate for coordination and cooperation for a more effective response to serious cross-border health threats, at both the European Union (EU) and EU Member State levels. It aims to strengthen prevention, preparedness and response planning; reinforce epidemiological surveillance and monitoring; improve data reporting; and strengthen EU coordination.

The European Commission is building a strong European Health Union to further improve coordination of serious cross-border threats including those associated with environment and climatic conditions. According to the Communication: Building a European Health Union - preparedness and resilience, the European Health Union builds on the EU’s joint effort to reconcile the relationship with the natural environment by engaging in different and more sustainable patterns of economic growth. Fighting climate change and finding ways to adapt to it, preserving and restoring biodiversity, improving diets and lifestyles, reducing, and removing pollution from the environment will have positive effects on citizens’ health.

The EU4Health Programme (the Programme) is the biggest EU health programme to date that will invest €5.3 billion into actions with an EU added value, complementing EU countries’ policies and pursuing one or several of EU4Health´s objectives.

The programme aims to improve and foster health in the Union, protect people in the Union from serious cross-border threats to health, improve medicinal products, medical devices and crisis-relevant products and strengthen health systems. EU4Health intends, among others, to “contribute to tackling the negative impact of climate change and environmental degradation on human health”, by providing funding to eligible entities, health. The Programme’s objectives will be pursued, ensuring a high level of human health protection in all Union policies and activities in keeping with the One Health approach, where applicable.

Finally, the Commission Communication on a comprehensive approach to mental health from June 2023 calls climate change one of the ingredients of the ‘triple planetary crisis’ of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. It also highlights that young people are strongly preoccupied by climate change and that many of them see their future as frightening.

European agencies and authorities in the fields of climate change and health

To strengthen Europe's defences against infectious disease, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) was established in 2005. The ECDC is in charge of scientific evidence and risk assessments on communicable diseases, including those associated with a changing climate. European countries report data from their surveillance systems to the ECDC. Under regulation 2022/2371 the list of diseases notifiable at EU level to the ECDC will be updated allowing timely detection of diseases including those associated with climate change.  ECDC developed the 'European Environment and Epidemiology' (E3) Network, which provides real-time monitoring tools of meteorological conditions to assess the risk of water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases as well as other tools for risk assessments. In addition, ECDC and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) funds. VectorNet, now in its second iteration (2019–2023), which is a platform which supports the collection of data on vectors and pathogens in vectors related to both animal and human health. It facilitates exchanging data on the geographical distribution of arthropod disease vectors in Europe.

Set up in 2021 the European Health Emergency and Preparedness Response Authority (HERA) takes EU preparedness and response capacity to serious cross-border health threats to a new level and will be a key element for the establishment of a stronger European Health Union. Equipped with a budget of €6 billion for the period 2022-2027, HERA works to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to health emergencies, including from climate change. It operates in two modes: Before a health crisis - in the “preparedness phase” - HERA will work closely with other EU and national health agencies, industry, and international partners to improve the EU's readiness for health emergencies. In case of a public health emergency at EU level, HERA switches quickly to emergency operations, taking swift decisions and activating emergency measures.

The European Environment Agency co-manages with the European Commission the European Climate and Health Observatory. It provides the policy makers with robust and independent information about the environment, including the trends and projections in climate hazards and their impacts on human health.

EU policy areas with co-benefits for climate change effects on health 

Many other EU policies allow addressing the health impacts of climate change, too. For instance, the Renovation Wave aims to make buildings more energy efficient, recognising that people in poorly insulated and equipped buildings are more exposed to hypothermia in winter and heat stress in summer, notably of they belong to vulnerable groups. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, launched in May 2020, promotes tree planting and nature restoration, and this can help cool urban areas and reduce floods and other natural disasters. The strategy, which aims to put Europe's biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030, contains also other actions and commitments, like calling on larger European cities to develop Urban Greening Plans. Finally, the EU taxonomy on sustainable finance aims to deliver a healthier and more climate-resilient living environment by directing more private investments into environmentally sustainable activities, including to climate change adaptation.

Investment in knowledge development and implementation

Horizon Europe  is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation until 2027. Equipped with a budget of €95.5 billion, it tackles climate change, helps to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and boosts the EU’s competitiveness and growth. It offers numerous funding opportunities for research and innovation on the health effects of climate change, notably under the so-called health cluster, but possibly also in other specific programmes. 

Another important  part of Horizon Europe are the so-called EU Missions - commitments to solve major societal challenges – and which include the

  • the  EU Mission on climate change adaptation, including societal transformation. Equipped with a budget of €673 million, it focuses on supporting EU regions, cities and local authorities in their efforts to build resilience against the impacts of climate change. More than 300 regional and local authorities have signed the Mission Charter to date
  • the Mission on climate-neutral and smart cities, which aims to foster a just transition to improve people’s health and well-being, with co-benefits, such as improved air quality or healthier lifestyles, emphasizing the important nexus of climate change adaptation, mitigation and health.

The information on the research projects and results funded by the previous EU framework programme Horizon 2020, is available in the Resource Catalogue of the Observatory.