09 November 2021

Climate policy must rest on two solid pillars. Not only are radical measures to cut down emissions required, but also long-term initiatives to adapt society to a changed climate. This is the conclusion of environmental scientist Sofie Storbjörk at Linköping University, member of a Swedish expert council for climate adaptation.

Flooding in Gävle 2021.
Flooding in Gävle last summer. Lotte Fernvall

Large areas of Europe were hit by heavy torrential rain and flooding during the summer. The results were catastrophic, with hundreds of fatalities and many more forced to leave their homes. Similar disasters hit China and India. Sweden was also affected by heavy rain, principally in Dalarna and the area around Gävle.

At the same time, extreme heatwaves covered southern Europe, and North America experienced record temperatures of between 45 and 49 degrees.

Extreme weather conditions are occurring more frequently, which has raised the temperature and seriousness of the climate debate.

World leaders are currently meeting in Glasgow to discuss what must be done to reverse the trend. The world is far from achieving the climate targets that were negotiated at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Emissions are not falling at the required rate; there is no evidence of a green recovery after the pandemic; and global temperatures are increasing.

“Major reductions in emissions will be decisive”, says Sofie Storbjörk. “But that’s not enough. We are already seeing the effects of a change in climate. Climate policy must rest on two solid pillars – not only reduced emissions but also long-term work with climate adaptation.”

Need for climate adaptation

Sofie Storbjörk has worked in climate adaptation for nearly twenty years, and one of the topics she has investigated is how much practical effect discussions and plans have on the work carried out. Through the years, she has witnessed a clear change in the way climate adaptation is viewed.

“When I started looking into this in 2003, only a few people were talking about it. The Gudrun storm in 2005 was something of a wake-up call. Only a few years after the storm, changes had been made to the Swedish Planning and Building Act to place greater responsibility on municipalities. The county administrative boards were given a coordinating role. Today, these questions are definitively in the spotlight”, says Sofie Storbjörk.

However, long-term initiatives in climate adaptation are still lacking in many municipalities. Nine of ten municipalities replied in a recent report that they had been affected by climate change, but fewer than half had allocated resources for climate adaptation measures.

“This is a problem. We are seeing far too few adaptation measures being taken by municipalities. My research has shown that municipalities still work on a case-to-case basis when dealing with the problems. The pace of the work must increase, and real changes must be made in the way in which several sectors operate. Another thing we need is increased collaboration between public and private actors”, says Sofie Storbjörk.

There are fundamental conflicts between different interests. People are keen to build houses close to water, despite the risk of flooding, landslides and beach erosion. This means that municipalities on occasions compromise on guidelines for climate adaptation.

There is a risk that we will lock ourselves into unsustainable patterns in the ongoing societal changes, using solutions that rather tend to increase the vulnerability of society.

Even so, things are happening. Sofie Storbjörk is keen to emphasise measures that serve several functions simultaneously. One example is the management of surface water, which has become a problem in cities where higher population density has led to an increase in impermeable areas. When torrential rain occurs, it is possible to lead the water to parks that are normally used for relaxation and recreation. Other municipalities have drawn up innovative coastal protection that not only protects against increases in sea level but also creates new surfaces for urban development, making coastal regions more readily available to people.

“What we need here is increased investment in solutions based on the natural world. Interesting work is currently under way in Malmö, for example, where proposals for future coastal protection have been drawn up. But the plans must then be turned into reality.”

New report at the beginning of 2022

Sofie Storbjörk is one of seven members of the Swedish National Expert Council for Climate Adaptation, set up by the government in 2018. The council is to present a report at the beginning of 2022, with suggestions for the direction that national work with climate adaptation is to take, and initiatives in the field.

“I can’t at the moment reveal what we will suggest, but we hope that our ideas will lead to Sweden being able to take further steps in practical work with adaptation.”
Sweden can learn important lessons from other countries.

“There’s a lot we can learn from the Netherlands, for example, where work with coastal protection has a long history. And we can learn from cities such as Copenhagen, where they have made large investments in construction projects to remove the risks that are associated with torrential rain.”

“And things are also happening in Sweden, but I would, of course, prefer that we could make progress more rapidly. At the same time, climate adaptation is not simply a matter of ticking the right boxes. We must fundamentally rethink the way in which we build our cities, to create a more climate-robust future”, says Sofie Storbjörk.

Translated by George Farrants

Photo credit Magnus Johansson


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