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New tool for municipal climate change adaptation

A new, easy-to-use tool is now available to guide municipalities in adapting their activities and planning to a changing climate. The tool was developed by a group of researchers at Lund University.
Photo: Pixabay

“Climate change adaptation has many layers of complexity but can also be quite straightforward. It is about making all decisions point in the right direction,” says Christine Wamsler who conducts research on sustainable urban development at Lund University focused on climate change adaptation.

Climate change adaptation aims to assist society in adapting to changing conditions, in both the short and long term, for instance to a warmer and wetter climate where extreme weather events such as heat waves and flooding are becoming more common.

Wamsler and her colleagues have studied cities around the world to identify success factors for climate change adaptation at the local level.

“Successful adaptation requires, for instance, clearly defined responsibilities and funding. If these are lacking, adaptation can end up being the responsibility of no one specific, and might never progress beyond the planning stage,” says Wamsler.

Climate change adaptation in four Swedish municipalities

In a study that was presented in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change at the end of last year, Wamsler and her research team studied climate change adaptation in four Swedish municipalities – Malmö, Lomma, Helsingborg and Kristianstad. A similar study, carried out in eight German municipalities, was published this year in the journal Ecology and Society.

“They have all been affected by flooding in recent years, which has pushed climate change adaptation further up the agenda. Despite this, our research showed discrepancies in current approaches and that there has been a lack of a general overview. For example, a municipality might have an adaptation plan, but it is not followed. Or the person in charge of climate change adaptation might not receive sufficient internal support to perform their task. Based on the analysis of such local experiences, the new tool was developed.”

Kristianstad Vattenrike
Kristianstad in the south of Sweden, was selected best in Sweden in climate adaptation, by IVL (Svenska Miljöinstitutet) and Svensk Försäkring in 2015. Photo: Claes Sandén, Kristianstad kommun

Systematic work across administrative boundaries

“While there are other guidelines for climate change adaptation, the advantage of this tool is its simplicity and the provision of a holistic, complete overview. The tool aids municipalities in identifying their strengths and weaknesses and defining objectives and pathways to foster climate change adaptation,” says Wamsler.

“Sustainable institutional change requires a systematic method, which ensures that climate change adaptation informs every decision. Different municipal departments often have different and possibly contradictory objectives. Even if one of the departments bears formal responsibility for climate change adaptation, all the departments need to work on this in a coordinated manner. Otherwise, there is a major risk that in the long run no one will take responsibility for climate change adaptation in the municipalities,” says Wamsler.

More than flagship projects

Climate change adaptation focuses on how we can best develop our cities and how vulnerable they are to climatic variability and extreme weather events. “Are there enough green spaces, ponds etc. to deal with water during heavy rains? Are there green areas or public facilities (for example libraries) where people can cool off during extreme heat? Is there a need to construct flood barriers for protection against flooding, or is it necessary to ban building in areas prone to flooding? Is there a back-up system in case critical infrastructure or power supply fails due to extreme weather? And so on.”

“The occurrence and impact of an extreme event does not depend solely, for instance, on how heavy the rainfall or how strong the wind is, but on how we have developed our cities. Municipalities tend to invest in climate change adaptation by only supporting a few flagship projects instead of making it a feature of all municipal work,” says Wamsler.

Augustenborg, Malmö
Augustenborg, a neighbourhood in Malmö where renovation and climate adaptation was done in close cooperation with the residents in the area. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Jorchr.

Difficult to secure long-term funding

All the municipalities covered by the studies confirmed that they faced problems in securing long-term funding. Climate change adaptation does not fit well into the municipalities’ traditional way of operating.

Several municipal departments need to be involved, and adaptation often competes for funding with more urgent short-term needs, such as housing, schools and health care. It may then be difficult to prioritise investments that can prevent damage as far as twenty or thirty years into the future.

“All municipalities have their own specific geographical conditions that affect their vulnerability to climate variability and extreme weather. No two municipal organisations are identical, and the risks therefore manifest themselves in different ways. The tool that I have developed can help municipalities reflect on what they are currently doing, where they want to get to, and what areas need additional attention. Furthermore, it is essential that the investments made can also benefit other objectives, such as creating an attractive urban environment that fosters people’s wellbeing,” says Wamsler.

“A common misconception is that climate change adaptation is a one-off operation in the municipality. I see climate change adaptation as an ongoing process in which you constantly have to learn from the changes that are made. Another important aspect in this context is the need to better involve citizens in work on climate change adaptation”, Wamsler concludes.

Text: Nina Nordh

Four main principles for climate change adaptation

  1. Keep climate hazards away from cities – e.g. flood barriers or breakwaters to reduce the risk of flooding in the urban area when sea levels rise in connection with a storm
  2. Reduce cities’ vulnerability so that they can live with hazards such as heavy rains and sea level rise – e.g. green areas, retention ponds, etc.
  3. Prepare cities to respond to extreme weather events– e.g. be able to open up air-conditioned libraries to the public during heat waves or provide mobile pumps in residential areas to deal with flooding after heavy rains.
  4. Prepare cities to recover after potential extreme weather events– e.g. formal or informal insurance, provision of health support and temporary shelter during reconstruction.

Guide for municipal climate change adaptation

The tool developed at Lund University consists of three parts:

  • Step 1: identify the municipality’s present activities at the operational, institutional and inter-institutional levels
  • Step 2: evaluate the identified activities – find strengths and weaknesses
  • Step 3: based on this, develop new strategies and activities to create holistic support for climate change adaptation within the municipality and coordinate the work with other actors, including individual citizens and households

The guide for municipal climate change adaptation: 

Integrating Climate Change Adaptation into Municipal Planning and Governance

The study in four Swedish municipalities that was presented in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change, 2014: Local levers of change

The study in eight German municipalities that was published  in the journal Ecology and Society, 2015Mainstreaming ecosystem-based adaptation: transformation toward sustainability in urban governance and planning

More about Christine Wamslers research

Material for 2015 checkpoint for climate change adaptation

Earlier this year the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) issued a report containing recommendations on how climate change adaptation work in Sweden can be enhanced. Research by Christine Wamsler’s research team has been used as input for parts of the report, including Chapter 6 concerning Swedish research on climate change adaptation in governance and planning.

Read more: Underlag till kontrollstation 2015 för anpassning till ett förändrat klimat (Material for 2015 checkpoint for climate change adaptation)

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