02/12/2019 Opinion

Enric Aguilar Anfrons, Senior Researcher at the C3 (Centre for Climate Change) and Head of the Department of Geography in Rovira i Virgili University

The challenge of climate change in Southern Catalonia

climate change can still offer opportunities, for instance, exploiting new farming methods or marketing extended tourist seasons

Delta de l'Ebre. FOTO: EnRutx, Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is a global phenomenon that is caused by human activity and which will determine the future of our species. The report United in Science, published after the Climate Action Summit 2019, indicates that we are 1.1ºC above preindustrial temperatures and that we have less and less time to restrict the temperature increase to the 1.5ºC that according to previous reports would limit the impact to manageable levels. The data provided by the Ebro Observatory shows that we have undergone an increase of 0.2ºC/decade from 1880, which has increased to 0.4ºC/decade in the last thirty years. According to climate models, the general consensus about our region is that it will have an increasingly warm and dry climate. The Spanish Agency for Meteorology (AEMET) offers climate projections based on global and regional models, which can be downscaled to interpolate the expected changes to climate at the provincial level. For Tarragona, the AEMET projects increases of between 1ºC and 5ºC  with respect to the average for the 1961-1990 period and depending on the level of emissions reduction. However, the same models point to lower and more irregular rainfall. This, added to the increase in evapotranspiration associated with higher temperatures, will make water resources scarcer.

Climate change is associated with other phenomena such as rising sea levels, ocean acidification, more frequent heat waves and other extreme weather events. In addition to physical impacts, there are also impacts on the economy, people and society in general. The productive sectors of Southern Catalonia have a two-way relationship with climate change. On the one hand, they are responsible for emitting climate change gases, and on the other, they are subject to the impact of these gases. According to data from the Catalan Office for Climate Change (OCC), during the years of economic crisis, Catalan emissions fell from almost 60Mt of CO2 in 2007 to about 42Mt in 2013. Since then, the trend has slowly reversed with emissions rising once again, although they have remained at the levels of the late 1990s. Obviously, we need to be more ambitious and all public and private institutions must evolve towards a policy of drastically reducing emissions. In this sense, the Voluntary Agreements programme of the OCC is remarkable insofar as has led to a group of Catalan institutions committing to undertake “decarbonisation” actions. However, several institutions, including the Rovira i Virgili University, have started a new policy on the climate emergency and we need to go further by facilitating the energy transition. Why? Because energy transition equals mitigation, mitigation equals less impact, and less impact translates into the viability of human systems in general, and of economic activities in particular.

In Southern Catalonia, activities such as agriculture or tourism, to name few, have an important weight both economically and in guaranteeing the social fabric and the reasonable (sustainable) occupation and exploitation of environment. Their location in the region is closely related to our Mediterranean climate. But now climate is progressively imposing new conditions on agriculture, including difficulties in accessing water resources, the need for new crop varieties, phenological changes that lead to changes in production, farming cycles, and so on. In some cases, the survival of the environment itself is even called into the question. For example, the Ebro Delta has to face a triple challenge: a reduction in sediments, subduction due to the weight of the Delta itself and the rise in sea levels.

The rise in sea level also affects the tourism sector that caters for tourists seeking sun and beaches. By definition, a large part of the tourism infrastructure is located close to the sea and will be likely to suffer significantly in the near future, especially during extreme episodes of rain.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is preparing its sixth report. We must not forget to remember some concepts that appeared in the first reports, back in the 1990s. Then, the experts talked of challenge and opportunity. There was talk of challenge to make a cleaner and more sustainable planet, and there was talk of the savings to be made from climate action versus the cost of doing nothing. Unfortunately, we have already paid the cost of doing too little and now we talk more about the climate emergency than opportunity. Nevertheless, climate change can still offer opportunities, for instance, exploiting new farming methods or marketing extended tourist seasons. However, in order to take advantage of these, we need to make an energy and technological transition that leads us to a neutral emission planet no later than 2040. The Universitat Rovira i Virgili, as the main generator of knowledge in Southern Catalonia, has an opportunity, even an obligation, to promote multidisciplinary research on climate change and energy transition involving research groups in the basic science of climate change and those who work on more technological, legal or economic aspects. Transferring knowledge and transferring solutions. This is our challenge.