This paper discusses western European cold spells (where temperature falls below the 10% quantile of the winter temperature distribution) in current and future climate. It is demonstrated that many of the projected future changes in cold-spell statistics (duration, return period, intensity) can be explained by changes in the mean (increase) and variance (decrease) of the winter temperature distribution. After correcting for these changes (by subtracting the mean temperature and by dividing by the standard deviation), future cold-spell statistics display no major changes outside estimated error bounds. In absolute terms however, the future cold spells are projected to become ∼5°C warmer (and remain above freezing point), thus having a significant climatic impact. An important contributor to the projected future decrease of temperature variance is shown to be the reduction of the mean zonal temperature gradient (land-sea contrast). These results have been obtained using a 17-member ensemble of climate-model simulations with current and future concentration of greenhouse gases.