Οn Tuesday 21 February, the Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO) of the Institute of Alternative Policies ENA organised a conference on the sectoral and local challenges regarding adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

During the conference, conclusions and policy recommendations of recent SDO publications on the sectors of Agriculture, Tourism, Health and Civil Protection were presented. The presentations were discussed in a round table with the participation of the Mayors of Larissa and Nisyros, i.e. Mr. Apostolos Kalogiannis and Mr. Christofis Koronaios, the General Manager of Rethymno’s Municipal Water Operator, Elisavet Georgiadou, the Professor of Organic Agriculture at the Agricultural University of Athens, Dr. Dimitrios Bilalis, the Head of Policy at WWF Hellas, Mrs Theodota Nantsou and, the Professor at the Department of Environment of the University of the Aegean, Dr. Ioannis Spilanis.

The new ‘climate normal’ requires sectoral and local actions to prevent and manage the impacts of climate change

The coordinator of the SDO, Yannis Eustathopoulos, underlined that the new climate normal makes adaptation to the impacts of climate change inevitable. Climate developments confirm that the key-question is not whether we should adapt but what is the most appropriate way to do so, while avoiding wrong and ineffective adaptation strategies (“maladaptation”).

The greater exposure of some regions to natural disasters (e.g. floods, droughts, forest fires) or to the long-term effects of climate change (e.g. desertification, water degradation, sea level rise) induce environmental risks (e.g. degradation of ecosystem services), risks to the safety of citizens and workers, risks to public health protection and the functioning of basic infrastructures, threats to economic development and the well-being of the population (e.g. deterioration of local conditions and reduced performance of economic sectors such as tourism and agriculture).

However, and as underlined in the decisions of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2022 (COP27), a large number of countries, especially the less developed (and more vulnerable) countries, have not yet developed or implemented a climate change adaptation strategy.  Even in countries that do have a strategy -including Greece- progress is often very limited and falls well short of the challenges posed by physical developments, especially in regions and countries suffering higher vulnerability such as the Mediterranean ones.

In this context, it was pointed out that the challenge of adaptation is also an issue of social justice and cohesion. This is because the degree of exposure to climate risks is unevenly distributed both spatially and socially. As a result, vulnerable social groups and lower-income groups are overall more exposed to the impacts of climate change.

In conclusion, the coordinator of the SDO of ENA stressed that the emphasis that must be placed on climate adaptation should not be perceived as undermining the objective of mitigation. On the contrary, adaptation is a complementary pillar of policies for tackling climate change. In that sense, mitigation aims at ‘avoiding the unmanageable’ and adaptation at ‘making it possible to manage the inevitable’.

The impact of climate change in Greece and its regions

In her presentation, Dr. Vassiliki Kotroni, Director of Research at the National Observatory of Athens, set the context of the changes that have already been observed in Greece’ s climate, highlighting the gradual increase in temperature as well as in the frequency of heatwaves (both in terms of duration and intensity) and the increase in heavy rainfall in recent decades.

She referred in particular to the systematic recording, since 2000, of severe weather events causing significant social and economic impacts in Greece. In total, more than 550 events have been recorded, with the majority of them being floods. Finally, Ms Kotroni presented climate change scenarios for the next thirty years which show a rising trend of temperature and a gradual decrease in precipitation in the near future.

Agriculture: Most of Greece’ s basic crops will be severely affected by climate change

According to Dr. Christos Tsadilas, Scientific Associate of ENA, the agricultural sector in Greece is very sensitive to climate change and is expected to be severely affected by it. Based on climate projections, most of the country’s crops (C3 crops) will be severely impacted and the country’s agricultural output and income will be affected if appropriate adaptation measures are not taken. The crops that are expected to be most affected are wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice, cotton, sugar beet, tobacco, sunflower, most fruits and many vegetables.

In order however, to achieve adaptation, key structural weaknesses of the agricultural sector in Greece must be addressed simultaneously, such as the very small farm size, the ageing population, the fact that the majority of crops belong to categories particularly vulnerable to climate change, the poor funding of agricultural research and innovation and the major problems related to crops irrigation. According to Dr. Tsadilas, public authorities do not seem to understand the magnitude and importance of the effects of climate change and the need to take all necessary measures to adapt the agricultural economy to the new climatic conditions.

Greek tourism: highly exposed to climate change and on an unsustainable growth trajectory

Dr. Angelos Sotiropoulos, who prepared the SDO’s report on tourism in relation to climate change, noted that Greece is expected to be most affected by the current and future impacts of climate change as the Mediterranean is a vulnerability hotspot. The tourism sector is also one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change with a number of potential adverse impacts -economic, social and local/regional- which are expected to affect all its activities. The strong seasonality of Greek tourism combined with its uneven distribution in the warm climate zones of the country are expected to have a negative impact on the industry’s output. Overall, factors such as natural disasters, the destruction or deterioration of tourist destinations and monuments, the chronic effects of climate change such as water scarcity and drought, but also the general risk for the health of workers in tourism due to rising temperatures are expected to create serious problems to the operation and economic viability of the tourism industry if the necessary interventions are not taken in time.

According to Mr. Sotiropoulos, the recovery of tourism in Greece after the pandemic not only does not incorporate elements of climate mitigation and adaptation but is taking place by reinforcing the characteristics of the pre-pandemic unsustainable model. In fact, Greek tourism is moving in the opposite direction, with its return in 2022 to an ungoverned model of mass tourism which prevailed during decades. In this context, public tourism policies to date have been aimed at short-term revenue maximisation at the expense of broader environmental and social sustainability. Mr. Sotiropoulos stressed that there is no organised sectoral policy framework for climate change adaptation for tourism. Therefore, the dynamics of tourism towards maintaining an environmentally irresponsible growth pattern, combined with the fact that the necessary policies for its adaptation have not been implemented to date, make this sector extremely vulnerable and potentially unsustainable to the negative impacts of climate change in the light of multiple crises and threats at international and national level (energy crisis, geopolitical tensions in the Southeastern Mediterranean, social inequalities, etc.).

Early warning systems: six measures to better prepare for severe weather events

Dr. Kostas Lagouvardos, Director of Research at the National Observatory of Athens, presented a set of proposals for improving the capacity of public authorities to cope with severe weather events in Greece. Following the recent guidelines of both the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations, emphasis is placed on the creation and operation of early warning systems.

Mr Lagouvardos presented specific proposals for the design, implementation and operation of these systems in Greece:

  1. Investment in monitoring networks
  2. Adoption of innovation following scientific progress in the field of weather monitoring and forecasting
  3. Development of early warning systems at local and regional level
  4. Establishment of a permanent interdisciplinary working group of experts to support, on a permanent basis, Civil Protection
  5. Training of local civil protection staff and voluntary groups in the use of early warning systems
  6. Promoting constant cooperation between all scientific and operational actors.

Mr Lagouvardos stressed that the protection of citizens’ lives and property cannot come through fragmented approaches and that the exclusion of local actors from policy planning and implementation, the use of outdated methodologies, the existence of barriers to cooperation and the adoption of constant changes in strategies hinder effective policy action.

Health in the midst of climate change

According to Mr. Thanos Myloneros, Specialist in Health Systems and Public Health, and Coordinator of the Health Unit of ENA, climate change and air pollution are responsible for about 550,000 deaths per year in WHO Europe countries, out of an estimated global total of 7 million deaths. In fact, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 more deaths per year than today due to malnutrition, communicable diseases, diarrhea and heat stroke.

According to a recent SDO report, the main impacts on health in Greece due to climate change are expected to result from an increase in temperatures in most areas of the country (particularly in Athens) and an increase in vector-borne diseases (mainly from mosquitoes). These factors are expected to put pressure on the health system if it is not properly prepared. The population and social groups that are estimated to be most exposed to the risks of climate change are the elderly, children, people with chronic health problems,  lower income groups, people living in island and mountainous areas, migrants, as well as categories of workers whose professional activity is directly linked to climate change, such as farmers, firefighters, drivers, transporters and service workers.

Overall, the incomplete or even non-existent integration of the climate change adaptation dimension in most of the health-related legislation suggests weak and uncoordinated preparation of the sector for the upcoming changes and impacts. In general, the health sector in Greece -which does not invest in prevention across the whole spectrum of risk factors- lacks an organized (with tangible daily actions) methodology for adaptation to climate change at both central, regional and local levels. Although there are initiatives that are relevant to adaptation to climate change targeting civil protection (e.g. combating vectors, protecting citizens from air pollution episodes, fires and floods), this actions do not form part of a comprehensive, integrated and coherent strategy for adapting the health sector.