Challenges and opportunities of adaptation to climate change


Uncertainty of the exact effects, and their spatial distribution, is the key challenge in adapting to climate change. However, on the basis of climate scenarios and exceptional situations in the past, it is possible to assess local vulnerability. Active, correctly timed adaptation measures are required to benefit from climate change. Ecological sustainability is the basic prerequisite of successful adaptation solutions.

Climate scenario is no weather forecast

Today, climate models give a good insight into the development trends of climatic conditions. Recent assessments for Finland have been produced by the ACCLIM project of the Finnish Meteorological Institute [1]. These guidelines already facilitate reasonable assessment of various regions' vulnerability to change, and decision-making on required measures.

Climate change scenarios are not, however, future weather forecasts. The models illustrate long-term trends in average temperatures and precipitation, whereas weather conditions vary naturally year after year, now and in future. However, climate models facilitate assessment of seasonal climate variations in future. The global development of greenhouse gas emissions is another significant source of uncertainty related to climate change. In the end, it determines the intensity of future change completely.

Above all, the success of mitigation measures, and how early the implementation of adaptation measures commences, influence the costs of adapting to climate change. Since the majority of adaptation measures can be carried out as part of normal maintenance measures or updates to operating instructions, they will not incur any major costs. As regards major technical solutions, such as floodwalls and flood plains, it is of primary importance to chart any potential need for them in future, in order to prevent today's decisions from ultimately preventing their implementation should the need arise.

Past problems offer a learning opportunity

In terms of risk management, it is essential to consider both the severity of the risk, and its predicted recurrence. Minor economic and human risks that are rarely realised can be managed through insurance policies, for instance. However, in certain sectors the abatement of risks that occur rarely but have major impacts must be taken seriously, for instance when making decisions on the placement of power plants and production facilities. A large zone remains between these extremes. There, the magnitude of risks and their probability must be assessed case by case.

Figure. Risk management methods depend on the nature of the risk. Paraphrasing: Renn, O.: Risk Governance. Coping with Uncertainty in a Complex World. London (Earthscan 2008).

When charting local adaptation needs, it is therefore important to consider what is a regionally tolerable level of risk. Even a light cost-benefit analysis may provide a good overview of the need for measures: what would the cost of preventing damage at the chosen risk level be in relation to potential costs of repairing damage? How will climate change influence the realisation of risk - do the risks diminish or increase? If the risks seem to keep growing in future, it is probably justified to take action.

Sector-specific research is making rapid progress and in several sectors, forecasts are expected to become considerably more specific in the next few years, for instance as regards the predicted rise in sea level.

Local challenges can be addressed easily by examining past weather phenomena: what kind of conditions caused damage and how can these conditions be predicted to develop in future? Has the vulnerability of the area in question decreased or increased after the event? Who should take action and how, in order to diminish the risk of corresponding situations? And is the event in question a good indicator for the 'pain barrier' between a tolerable and excessive risk? This approach (Local Climate Impacts Profile, LCLIP) is extensively used in Britain [2]. It has been applied in Finland, too, for instance in preparing the adaptation section of the Climate Strategy for the Helsinki Metropolitan Area [3].

The fact that individual effects of climate change may be positive, but the aggregate impacts of various factors negative, makes it more difficult to assess the necessity of adaptation measures. For instance, in agriculture and forestry, the positive impacts are evident as slight lengthening of the growing season, and thus better harvests and accelerating forest growth, whereas the increasing threat from alien species and extreme weather phenomena, such as more frequent periods of draught and torrential rain, may result in harvest and timber losses. Changes in harvesting conditions also influence the overall benefit derived from change. Therefore, the impacts of climate change should always be assessed comprehensively throughout the production chain.

Careful planning facilitates benefiting from change

Adaptation needs vary both by region and by sector. When assessing vulnerability, the local conditions must be known and proportioned with change. What if rainfall in a particular area increases particularly in wintertime? What if summers get hotter and hot periods longer? What if there is no snow cover in most winters? Uncertainty of the intensity of impacts does not need to prevent adaptation, as the majority of climate change impacts can be taken into account easily and affordably - this is the case especially if the impacts are taken into consideration already at the planning stage. For instance, constructing higher buildings does not usually incur remarkable costs at the building stage, but can save from considerable material and financial damage in case a flood occurs.

Identification of adaptation needs as early as possible allows time to react and chart various options, and to divide costs over a longer term. Simultaneously, areas can be reserved as required by later adaptation measures, and temporary, safe use for the public benefit can be planned for these areas, e.g. use as recreation areas or cultivation plots. Leaving risky areas unconstructed is as important as building in the correct way. This allows leaving room for later measures and avoiding far-reaching, irreversible solutions [4].

Protecting existing structures is more complicated. Therefore, planning of technical protection measures requires more specific assessment of the risks caused by climate change. On the other hand, costs incurred from damage-repairing measures, such as drying and repair of mould damage may be high in relation to the overall costs of the building in question. In such cases, even more expensive protection may be in order [5]. Structural methods for reducing the risks of damage include improving drying systems and ventilation of base floors in buildings [6].

Adaptation measures can be seen as an opportunity

The primary objective of adaptation to climate change is to avoid damage resulting from change in climatic conditions, and extreme weather conditions, while taking the opportunities involved in gradual change into account. Opportunities arise for instance from slight lengthening of the growing season, cost savings and the impacts of adaptation measures on the use of land and water areas, and on general pleasantness. For instance, flood protection structures and storm water infiltration fields may be used as recreation areas, which also have a favourable effect on the microclimate of the planned area. Another aspect of the matter is green technology, predicted by the EU and the Finnish Government to prove as a source of economic growth and employment [7], [8].

Land use planning is a sector where attention to the need for adaptation can improve general pleasantness markedly. To mention a few examples: more efficient treatment of storm water by organic methods can diversify green zones. Covering of passages in urban areas can make the environment more pleasant for pedestrians, come rain or shine. Landscaping, vegetation and careful placement of buildings can help create pleasant microclimates by balancing wind conditions and the impacts of heat waves.

In energy production, warming climate improves the prerequisites for utilising bioenergy and water power. Potential for hydropower is increased by mild winters balancing the flow rates of waterways, and by increasing flow rates. This can be exploited through the use of current regulation practices [9]. As regards biomass, the change is bicentric: growth is anticipated to become slightly more rapid, but the impacts of periods of drought on growth, and the poor forest felling conditions in winter may decrease the benefits [10].

Do not intensify climate change by adapting to it

The better we succeed in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the less adaptation measures will we need. Mitigation of climate change, and adaptation to it may also contradict each other. Creation of more compact urban structures is an example of a measure striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but simultaneously it enhances the vulnerability of communities by increasing the area of regions non-permeable to water, and exposing an increasing number of people to local flooding [11].

On the other hand, adaptation measures should be ecologically and socially sustainable. This often involves changing of habits, because keeping to old habits often involves higher energy consumption as climate change progresses. Good examples of this include prolonging the winter season in ice stadiums and ski tunnels, and the conversion of air-source heat pumps into air-conditioning devices in hot summer weather.

Measures implemented to mitigate climate change will also influence the need to adapt. The objectives of such measures are challenging for the next few decades. Mitigation measures may change the future prospects of many sectors, for instance through technological reforms, possible changes in energy production structures, or changing attitudes related to sustainable development. Adaptation to a low-carbon lifestyle can thus be seen as one dimension of adaptation [8].