In dialogue about the heating transition
News publ. 31. May 2023
Op-Ed by Christian Kind
The disastrous flood in Western Germany made it drastically clear: The climate crisis is already here. First heat waves and drought, then heavy rain and floods – all extreme weather conditions that show that we have to act. But politics keeps lagging behind. For far too long we have ignored the role of climate change in extreme weather events and haven’t done enough to protect people and infrastructure. The consequences are fatal: even with radical reductions, we can no longer avert the climate crisis. Given how the atmosphere functions, today’s emissions will not contribute to the climate crisis for another 20 to 30 years.
The warning in the latest IPCC report is clear: even if all nations implement the requirements of the Paris Agreement and achieve a warming of ‘only’ 1.5 to 2°C, we will still live with considerable climate change – including in Germany. We need more than just climate protection: we have to learn to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Something rarely mentioned in the current debate: the federal government already adopted a strategy for climate adaptation back in 2008. Over the years, cross-departmental action plans have been created, progress reports have been submitted. Plenty of money has gone into research:
the federal government has studied the risks of climate change, created competence centres and funding programs, and published a large number of information systems and tools on the subject. Cities in particular picked up on this momentum: about 68 percent of all major German cities have developed strategies for adaptation, 30 percent have a heavy rain hazard map – many of them in North Rhine-Westphalia, by the way (see map).
Why is construction in flood plains still possible with a special permit? Why is urban soil sealing still increasing? Why does the number of heat deaths remain so high? Although pilot projects to deal with heat or heavy rain are being promoted in many municipalities, all too often the topic remains stuck in a niche – despite the efforts of committed stakeholders. Investors are still allowed to block fresh air corridors – even municipal climate adaptation managers with a vulnerability analysis on hand are powerless to prevent this.
What are the reasons for this? Climate adaptation is often about the use of land. Green spaces are used for rain water infiltration and retention, but also to create cool air, which improves the urban climate. This is a topic for urban and regional planning. But what if politicians have the wrong priorities and prefer to push ahead with the expansion of settlement and traffic areas? As a result, soil sealing continues to increase, which further exacerbates the negative impacts of the climate crisis. Clearly, a change in course is long overdue.
This misdirected focus also shows up in a lack of binding force when it comes to existing regulations. For example, the revised building code stipulates that climate adaptation measures must be taken into account in development plans – but only as one of many issues to consider and without any priority. Hence, far too often, the potential of this instrument remains untapped in practice. The political will is simply not there.
The same applies to standardisation, which regulates so much in this country – but not when it comes to vital climate adaptation: only 11 of the some 34,000 DIN standards explicitly address the impacts of climate change. For this reason, a revision of the relevant standards is urgently required.
For example, the technical regulations in water management still force planners to drain rainwater through expensive sewers when building new buildings instead of holding it back on site. This contradicts the much-hyped sponge city principle, in which rainwater should be temporarily stored where it falls. This is crucial to the design of climate-resilient cities, as we not only have to reckon with more heavy rain, but also with more frequent periods of drought.
It is the duty of the next federal government to make up for failures and to protect both our health and our infrastructure from the impacts of climate change. Climate adaptation must not remain a niche topic. Urgent action is required, particularly when it comes to funding, dealing with conflicting goals, the legal framework, and the mechanisms for monitoring progress. The following points must be on the agenda:
The federal government should make climate adaptation a joint task of the federation and the states and anchor this in Article 91a of the German constitution (as is the case for coastal protection). In this way, the federal government could financially support municipalities in adapting to the crisis, including the extensive renovations that are necessary for existing infrastructure. This could include, for example, the expansion of rainwater retention capacities as well as dismantling and resettlement activities in particularly endangered areas.
The federal funds should also be used to address goals that are in obvious conflict: the competition for space in our cities will intensify due to climate adaptation, even if we create more multifunctional open spaces. It is critical to look at the bigger picture and, for example, ensure that living conditions in cities and in rural areas are of equal quality. This will reduce the influx of people into and the pressure on cities.
The building code must be revised: all land use plans must include measures and areas that serve climate adaptation. This is a key step so that these issues are taken into account in planning and discussed regularly – independent of pilot projects and committed stakeholders. In addition, we need clear guidelines for urban land use planning on measures to deal with heavy rain or urban microclimates. There is currently a lack of legally sound argumentation aids. These are urgently needed, especially if we want to make a difference in existing buildings.
The German Institute for Standardization (DIN) and other organisations that develop standards or technical regulations should integrate climate impacts more strongly into their regulations and report on them regularly. For example, the rules for water management should take greater account of the entire water cycle and the idea of multifunctional land use. The revision of relevant standards and technical rules also increases the chances that innovative measures will not only be implemented as part of sporadic pilot projects.
In order for the topic to become an integral part of the political agenda, the federal government should establish an external mechanism to regularly monitor progress. The United Kingdom can serve as a model here: in 2009, the UK government established the Climate Change Committee, an external group of experts. This group reviews mandatory reports and points out deficits in implementation.
It has long been clear that action must be taken to at least reduce the effects of the climate crisis. The options for action have long been known, as well. It is critical that we do not delay any longer: the time to act is now! The new government in Germany urgently needs to get climate adaptation policy out of its niche and make it mainstream.
This article was first published on 22 September 2021 in Frankfurter allgemeine Zeitung.
Christian Kind is Head of Programme Climate Adaptation. He is primarily concerned with analysing the consequences of climate change for different groups and developing strategies for dealing with climate risks. One special focus of Christian’s work is the evaluation of efforts to adapt to climate change.