As climate change intensifies, Europe seeks local ways to adapt

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European projects are helping cities and regions find the best ways to adjust to more frequent – and increasingly severe – heat waves, storms and floods.

This article by Andrew Dunne was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

In Greece’s capital Athens, an ancient aqueduct could get a new lease of life as Europe steps up efforts to cope with global warming. The city plans to use a water channel built on the orders of Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD to irrigate modern-day green spaces, which are being expanded to limit the impact of sweltering temperatures. The channel ran 20 kilometres underground transporting water from the foot of Mount Parnitha in northern Athens to near the centre.

Unavoidable change

The possible revival is part of a push across the European Union to come up with distinct local answers to an increasingly common worldwide challenge: how best to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change

‘Athens has very little green space and this has a huge impact on our high temperatures,’ said Professor Chrysi Laspidou, who leads the EU-funded ARSINOE project on climate adaptation. ‘On a small scale, we are trying to show what might be possible by giving people a different vision.’

As global warming intensifies, learning how to adapt to extreme weather events – including more severe heatwaves – is gaining urgency in parallel with cutting emissions that are exacerbating the climate crisis. Adaptation featured high on the agenda of this year’s COP27, the United Nations climate change summit that took place in November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Against that backdrop, this has been a year like no other. Global weather reports have been dominated by floods, storms, droughts and wildfires. In Europe, Germany was battered by hail in June and the continent as a whole then had its hottest summer on record.

Working with areas across Europe that are vulnerable to climate change, we are developing innovative ideas about how they might respond.

Professor Chrysi Laspidou, ARSINOE

In a sign of growing attention to the challenges of adjusting to global warming, the European Commission has launched the ‘Mission on Adaptation to Climate Change‘ to support at least 150 regions and local authorities to become ready to face climate disruptions by 2030. ARSINOE is part of this initiative.

Far and wide

ARSINOE’s focus is far wider than Athens, bringing together 41 partners made up of industries, universities and local authorities from across Europe and beyond. From Denmark in the north to the Canary Islands in the south and the Black Sea in the east, the project is developing ‘living labs’ to tackle local and regional climate challenges.

‘Working with areas across Europe that are vulnerable to climate change, we are developing innovative ideas about how they might respond,’ said Laspidou, a professor at the University of Thessaly in Greece. ‘We aren’t coming in with solutions – these are decided upon through stakeholder engagement.’

One distinctive feature of the project is its use of an online marketplace known as the ‘Climate Innovation Window’. Still in development, this portal allows local people to list the climate challenges they face – from coastal floods to wildfires – and be matched with innovative solutions being tested in the field.

Going local

A separate EU-funded initiative that is advancing Mission Adaptation’s goals is IMPETUS. It combines Earth observation satellite information about climate change with on-the-ground data about affected communities. The project involves residents in weighing up the best responses to a given challenge.

‘We are connecting diverse data and human activities in new ways to implement climate adaptation measures at a local level, which we can then scale up and modify for different regional contexts,’ said Hannah Arpke, the project coordinator and a specialist in science management and rural development at the Eurecat Technology Centre in Spain.

The project covers test sites across Europe and brings together local residents, policymakers, businesses and partners from 32 organisations. Its demonstration sites span seven bioclimatic regions, ranging from the Mediterranean to the Arctic.

‘Our digital toolkit and engagement approach will allow people to define the kinds of climate scenarios they are facing, what kinds of adaptive measures they could take – such as limiting agricultural water use or raising flood barriers – and see which steps best help them to adjust,’ said the European Science Communication Institute’s Laura Durnford, who is the project’s spokesperson.

Catalan coastline

The 600-kilometres-long Catalan coast in north-eastern Spain is one of the demonstration sites. It’s an area that is highly vulnerable to climate change and will require a range of adaptation strategies.

We are connecting diverse data and human activities in new ways to implement climate adaptation measures at a local level.

Hannah Arpke, IMPETUS

The local team will map the region’s species, classify them according to their local extinction risk and identify ways to ensure their future. It will also improve the availability of fresh water at campsites and help promote investment decisions in the region.

A key priority for the area is recreating sand dunes and restoring wetlands in response to sea-level rise – a goal that requires Catalan businesses and regional players to forge a shared understanding of the threat and the protection the dunes and wetlands provide. This is challenging because coastal land ownership creates trade-offs, such as the desire for an unobstructed sea view, issues of access and questions over who pays.

‘Climate change poses a clear threat in Catalonia, but while there is goodwill towards adaptation there are also often conflicting interests and economic pressures in taking action,’ said Arpke.

In time, the researchers believe their approach can help communities across Europe and beyond to adapt and thrive.

Back to the future

Meanwhile, back in Athens, ARSINOE is helping to focus minds on the immediate challenge of scorching temperatures.

For a city that last year became the first in Europe to appoint a ‘chief heat officer’, more vegetation is a pressing need. The heat official has warned about Athens becoming uninhabitable as a result of temperature rises. Research has shown that increasing green spaces could help to reduce overall temperatures in cities by up to six degrees Celsius.

ARSINOE is asking Athenians to report local tree cover via a common platform and using virtual reality to showcase the benefits of a greener city. The two technologies increase public awareness about climate adaptation and help researchers get a better understanding of residents’ preferred solutions.

ARSINOE has also teamed up with local schools. Teaching students about climate change’s effects on the environment and society could pave the way for more sustainable consumer behaviour including reductions in energy use and waste – and help children to cope with global warming in the future.

But perhaps the project’s most ambitious initiative is to revive the Hadrian aqueduct, constructed over 15 years beginning in 125 AD.

Until the 1930s, the aqueduct served metropolitan Athens and today still contains water, which, while unsanitised, could be used for irrigation. Pipes are already being built and a water-distribution system is under development.

‘Greening Athens and using water from the Hadrian aqueduct would enhance our resilience in a multifaceted way at the local level,’ said Laspidou. ‘It would involve not only intervening with green spaces and alleviating heat, but also integrating local knowledge, culture and history to promote a distinct sense of identity and community.’

Further information

Follow the links to read more about the EU Mission: Adaptation to Climate Change and to explore Horizon Magazine.


High temperatures

Record-breaking summertime temperatures have been recorded in the Netherlands in recent years. With global temperatures rising, such extreme weather events will occur more often, and for longer periods. Prolonged high temperatures, with warm nights as well as hot days, can cause heat stress* and related health issues, particularly among city populations.

*Heat stress occurs when the human body cannot get rid of excess heat and can impact wellbeing through conditions such as heat stroke, exhaustion, cramps and rashes.

"We want to enable municipality decision makers who are working on spatial developments to identify heat stress 'hot spots' and cool areas, analyse the future effects of climate change, and model the effect of different heat stress-reducing measures. The tool must provide them with an easy starting point to integrate heat stress risks in their projects."


Despite the cooling effect of the sea in the region of Zeeland, the growing risk of heat stress has become a concern.

Elderly and other vulnerable people are more impacted by the effects of prolonged heat, which can cause headaches, dizziness, insomnia and other health issues – even death. Excess temperatures also affect general comfort and liveability of cities. Water quality can be reduced, both for drinking and swimming, and infrastructure can be affected. Buildings and concrete surfaces trap heat, potentially leading to damage, and release it during the night, keeping temperatures warm.

During heat waves, it is important that everyone has access to a cool and comfortable place. Appropriate spatial planning can help to decrease and deal with heat stress. Environmental factors like water bodies, trees, and shade have a major impact on stress caused by high temperatures. Therefore, planting trees, removing concrete surfaces, creating green roofs and cool spaces can improve our comfort and health. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for city planning to address these needs.


Flood risk

By 2050, sea-level within this region is predicted to rise by 15-40 cm, with more frequent extreme weather and more (severe) storms triggered by climate change. These changes will exacerbate the natural risk of flooding in the IMPETUS ‘Atlantic’ region, because it is surrounded by rivers and the sea, and is below sea level.

*Risk takes into account two aspects; the chance that an event will occur and the negative impact of such an event once it occurs. When there is a low chance that an event will occur, but its impacts are huge, the risk is still significant.

“In the Netherlands, an extensive system of dikes protects us against sea and river flooding. We have always put our faith in this defence and focused almost solely on flood prevention. However, pressure on our system will increase with climate change and rising sea levels. To adapt and maintain a safe living environment, we should develop other safety measures, like more robust spatial planning and contingency plans."


Rotterdam city, is located in Rijnmond – ‘mouth of the Rhine’. The Rhine river flows through this densely populated area and characterises the region. Protections such as sea dikes and storm surge barriers have been constructed to protect the region, but flooding still occurs.

People living in the city are accustomed to seeing smaller floods. The changing climate affects the interplay between rainfall, river levels and sea storms, increasing the flooding risk. Water levels could rise by a few metres, even in populated areas, with potentially massive impacts. 

Mitigation measures such as storm surge barriers reduce the chance that high water reaches the city, but to minimise the impact of floods when they do occur, adaptation strategies are also needed. A city that can adapt to be safe from floods must be carefully designed. How best to design such an adaptive city?

Critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and evacuation routes, must be accessible at all times. Planning how to best protect them, homes and lives is complex. Flood water behaves in a complex way and flood risks show strong spatial variations. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for adaptive city planning. 


Energy and waste water

To become climate-neutral by 2050, climate mitigation* efforts are crucial in our strategy for how to deal with climate change. Reducing our energy consumption is a significant mitigation step. In the Netherlands, 15% of energy is consumed in the Rijnmond area around the port of Rotterdam, in large part by a major petrochemical industry cluster.

*Climate mitigation encompasses measures such as technologies, processes, or practices that reduce carbon emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.


The Rotterdam port petrochemical industry cluster is Europe’s largest. It consumes 70% of the Rijnmond region’s energy. A large part of this energy is wasted (64%, 203 petajoules). More than half of that energy is lost with wastewater. In addition, most energy processes within these industries rely on fossil fuels, which has a significant impact on the climate.

Energy use must be minimised and fossil fuels should be replaced by renewable sources if climate change is to be mitigated. Electrification of processes opens up the possibility to use more renewable energy and can greatly impact decarbonisation. Recovering wasted heat would significantly reduce energy consumption and is a first step towards a more circular industry. 

Supporting industries in a transition towards climate-neutrality depends on identifying how best to reduce their carbon footprint without sacrificing production or performance. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is creating a digital tool that supports decision making about pathways towards an effective energy transition for EU industry.