New EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change: how ‘just’ is it?

Firefighters © CanStockphoto by Enjoylife

(1st March 2021) Climate change adaptation means “anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimize the damage they can cause or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise”.[1]

The effects of climate change are already visible today. They have a heavy impact on workers and, more generally, on the EU economy. Without adaptation measures, there will be a 3° C increase in global warming that would lead the current EU economy to an annual loss of 170 billion of euros (1.36% of the EU GDP).

Climate change will exacerbate extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and wildfires, and it may also increase the spread of viruses and pandemics. In that context, public service workers on the front line of natural emergencies such as firefighters, nurses and civil protection officers will see their stress and workload increase.

Responding to these challenges, the European Commission launched a new strategy on adaptation to climate change in February 2021, in order to become climate-resilient and to adapt fully to climate change by 2050.

The main elements of the strategy are:

  • Smarter adaptation: improving knowledge of climate impacts and solutions and increasing the availability of data through Climate-ADAPT, the European platform for adaptation knowledge
  • More systemic adaptation: supporting policy development in all sectors and at all levels through adaptation planning and climate risk assessments
  • Faster adaptation: accelerating the development of adaptation solutions
  • International action: increasing support for international climate resilience and preparedness and strengthening global engagement.

As part of the new strategy, the European Commission intends to build ‘just resilience’ to the unavoidable effects of climate change. However, with only weak references to workers’ rights and universal access to essential services, it begs the question – just for who?

EPSU’s General Secretary, Jan Willem Goudriaan commented:

“As it is, the just resilience’s concept is vague and evasive. The strategy should be revised in order to include concrete proposals for the social and gender dimension. Without taking into account the most vulnerable groups, specifically workers and women, there will not be genuine adaptation.”

“Public service workers such as firefighters, nurses and civil protection officers are on the front line whenever emergencies rise. Climate change is going to increase more and more these natural emergencies, and, so, enforcing health and safety measures for these workers is imperative. In the strategy there is no mention of these key challenges”.

EPSU’s key demands:

EPSU’s aim still remain to prevent climate change from happening and to drastically limit unavoidable consequences. To this end, the 2015 Paris agreement’s objective to limit global warming to 1.5° needs to be implemented by the European Union and the Member States. This will be the most equitable solution. We demand changes to our economic system in a socially just way. Well-financed social security systems as well as strong public services will be key to addressing the negative impacts climate change (mitigation and adaptation) policies could have on the workforce, our families and our communities. Detailed policy planning to anticipate and mitigate social disruption for workers must be at the core of the new EC strategy.

In the adaptation context, EPSU has welcomed the Commission’s aim to strengthen and to revise 2013 EU Adaptation Strategy, preferring to focus on solutions and implementations rather than mere planning.  However, the foreseen outcomes of the strategy are too narrow in scope for EPSU’s demands. EPSU calls for:

  • A legally binding initiative with binding targets for Member States regarding the development and implementation of National Adaptation Strategies and Plans. However, the Commission has decided to not promote a legally binding strategy. This allows Member States leeway to implement adaptation strategies and plans, thereby putting the protection of the most vulnerable at risk.
  • Enforcing the social dimension of the strategy, through full integration of social dialogue and collective bargaining in the policy making process. Trade Union involvement must happen at EU, national and local level, on a cross-sectoral and sectoral basis. While the Commission’s strategy does mention social partners, it makes no concrete proposals for their involvement. Also, the just resilience’s concept used by the Commission is vague and evasive. There are no concrete proposals in place for the social and gender dimension, which fails to acknowledge the huge effects of climate change on workers and women. The development of the social dimension should be at the core of the strategy.
  • Strengthening of health and safety measures for public service workers, such as firefighters, nurses and civil protection officers, who are on the front line whenever emergencies arise. Extreme weather conditions and rising temperatures will increase these workers’ stress and workload. Indeed, one of the most critical consequences of climate change in both the immediate and long-term future will be more severe natural emergencies, such as floods, droughts and wildfires. The strategy should be fully revised to include measures such as maximum working temperature, recruitment of more staff and adequately equipping public sector workers with protective equipment and the necessary skills to reduce and to prevent climate risks.
  • Giving Member States specific recommendations to invest in public services, infrastructure and social protection to increase the resilience of our societies to future climate events. The vital role played by healthcare systems, utilities networks and other public services such as social security systems, national and local administrations, must not be neglected in National Adaptation Strategies. However, the EU strategy includes only weak references to public sector and makes no clear recommendations for Member States to invest in local and regional public services, infrastructure or social protection systems.
  • Integration of the Right to Energy and the Right to Water into Adaptation Strategies so that they are universally guaranteed. As global temperatures rise and natural resources are depleted, access to essential services such as energy and water will become increasingly difficult. This will disproportionally affect low-income households, vulnerable communities, and women. The Right to Energy should be imperative in Adaptation to Climate Change strategies in order to eradicate energy poverty which affects nearly 11% of the EU population. The Right to Water should also be included in Adaptation strategies as water management will face huge challenges and will require adaptation measures. It is regrettable that the Commission’s strategy integrated only weak references and failed to include provisions on these rights. 
  • Taking a gender responsive approach and increasing female representation in the development and implementation process of the Adaptation Strategy, in adaptation plans and measures at national level. Climate change will have different effects on men and women and if a gender perspective is not included in adaptation policies, inequalities will increase.

What’s next?

After the launching of the strategy, the Commission will discuss it with Member States in the next Environmental Council meeting. Meanwhile, the Commission invites the European Parliament, the Council, the Committee of Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee to endorse this strategy.

EPSU will continue its advocacy effort to raise awareness on the concerns of emergency and public service workers.

For more information, please contact Guillaume Durivaux ([email protected]).

Link to Press Releases:

EPSU Press Release: EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change: how ‘just’ is it? | EPSU

ETUC Press Release:


[1] REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL on the implementation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change