10 Mar 2023, 11:27
Søren Bjørn-Hansen

Denmark keeps on dithering over climate adaptation plans

Copenhagen Strategic Flood Masterplan - By Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl
Copenhagen Strategic Flood Masterplan - By Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl

Despite its reputation as a nation at the forefront of green technologies like wind power, Denmark has been slow to focus on climate adaptation. Since a cloudburst shocked the capital Copenhagen with massive flooding in 2011, some steps to manage torrential downpours and rising sea levels have been implemented. Yet there is growing recognition that adaptation measures must go much further, while delays to a new national climate adaptation plan create a growing backlog.

***Please note: This report is part of a stocktake of climate adaptation efforts in Europe. Also read the main article Extreme weather forces unprepared Europe to focus on climate adaptation, the Q&A - Why Europe needs to adapt to the impacts of climate change, as well as the factsheet Europe steps up climate change adaptation in wake of floods and heatwaves.***


More water from above and below

As a country of islands and peninsulas, climate adaptation in Denmark has all been about water until now — preparing for rising seas and more intense rainfall. Annual precipitation has already increased by 15 percent, while average temperatures have risen 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

"Climate change affects different areas differently, but Denmark is generally getting wetter, be it water from above, from the sea, or below, as rising groundwater," explains Adrian Lema, Director at the National Centre for Climate Research at the Danish Meteorological Institute DMI.

More water means more flooding, more storm surges, and more cloudbursts. The country experienced a shocking watershed moment in the summer of 2011, when a violent cloudburst led to the heaviest rainfall within a 24 hour period that Denmark has seen in half a century in Copenhagen, causing more than 6 billion Danish Krones (800 million euros) of damages. "July 2011 was a wake-up call,” says Mia Holmbo Lind from the green think tank CONCITO in Copenhagen. “It made climate adaptation the talk of the town.”

Climate attribution research has shown that these extreme weather events have become much more likely in a warming world. “Our research indicates that global warming has already almost doubled the risks of cloudbursts such as the one in 2011, and the likelihood will increase with further warming,” says Lema.

Shocked into action

Heatwaves & droughts impact agriculture

Despite residing in Northern Europe, Denmark is also struggling with more frequent heat waves and droughts. In the summer of 2018 and the spring of 2020, record heat waves struck the country, causing 250 additional deaths in 2018 alone, according to the Danish Ministry of Health.

These changes in the weather bring with them great economic costs, explains Hans Sanderson, a senior scientist with iClimate at the University of Aarhus, and an expert on climate adaptation. “The agricultural sector experienced damages of over six billion DKK (800 million euros) at the last drought in 2018. And we will see more such serious consequences in the coming years."

Looking to the longer term beyond the year 2100, sea level rise will also become a very real problem in Denmark. It is a low-lying country with an average elevation above sea level of only 31 meters. "There is serious uncertainty regarding whether several Danish cities can exist in the year 2300 without substantial adaptation,” says Holmbo. “The sea is coming even if we meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement."

Screenshot from a Flood Risk map

Policy vacuum causes climate-proofing delay

In 2008, Connie Hedegaard, the minister for Climate and Energy at the time, presented a  "Strategy for adaptation to climate change in Denmark." The strategy was focused on gathering information, and resulted in the creation of a national digital climate adaptation platform called, which has become a knowledge hub on the subject. It was also aimed at furthering Danish research on adaptation, and created a forum to coordinate adaptation efforts between different government departments.

In reaction to the 2011 floods, a national plan was agreed in the following year to handle such events in the future. The "Action Plan for a climate-proof Denmark" was aimed specifically at managing the impacts of cloudbursts and torrential rain, and has been in effect since. Yet it is outdated as it is much too narrow in focus. Therefore, all parties in the Danish Parliament except the far-right Nye Borgerlige, which rejects the climate science outright, have been negotiating an update to the Action Plan, which was supposed to be finished before the November 2022 election. For as yet unknown reasons, the plan hasn’t seen the light of day, and the delay is already starting to have real impacts.

"We have a somewhat arrogant attitude in Denmark when it comes to adaptation. We think we know best, but we risk falling behind," says Holmbo.

Funding uncertainties

An update to the national Action Plan is desperately needed for a number of reasons. For example, Denmark has a variety of mechanisms in place to finance climate-proofing, but many are regarded as insufficient, sparking heated debates over a lack of funds. The national budget for coastal protection is a mere 300 million DKK annually (40 million euros), which is far from enough, Sanderson explains. Funds are sometimes supplemented locally, for example by the sale of building plots created on raised ground.

When it comes to funding coastal or watercourse adaptation projects, the model currently operates on a utility principle: those who benefit directly from the adaptation pay an additional tax. This approach might work well when summer cottages by the sea are affected, but doesn’t make sense when it comes to large urban areas, cultural sites, or the capital Copenhagen itself, where adaptation indirectly benefits the whole population.

Copenhagen leads the way

Copenhagen has been at the leading edge of rainwater management practices in Denmark for decades."Copenhagen's cloudburst strategy takes a holistic approach,” says Sanderson. “Copenhagen tries to see water as more than just a problem. It is important for life and not just a type of waste. This means creating solutions which are green, nature-based, and not just ‘grey and blue’ solutions of concrete dykes."

However, plans to protect the inner harbour from storm surges with an artificial island have been hotly contested. The island of Lynetteholmen is the first part of an expensive adaptation strategy financed by the sale of building plots and a depot of soil used in construction which is normally trucked in at great expense. Yet, this funding model has been criticised by economists, environmentalists and city planners alike. Several economists believe it will end up being financed by taxpayers instead, because the sale of building plots and funds from the soil depot have been overestimated.

The city of Randers is also often cited as a positive example, because it has clear and concrete plans for adapting the old city centre to better deal with the impacts of climate change — with the funding partly in place. "In a city like Randers, which has developed plans to protect the medieval city centre from rising waters, the adaptation is partly financed by the sale of building plots made available by changing the city landscape in the part that once was an industrial harbour," Holmbo adds.

Randers is situated in the Central Denmark Region, which concluded an adaptation project called Coast to Coast Climate Challenge in December 2022. The project was EU funded and aimed to change the conversation around climate adaptation — from one of fear to one of potential.

Lack of clarity and knowledge

In addition to financing problems, a lack of clarity regarding implementation principles is also considered a major hurdle to more effective adaptation measures, Holmbo explains. Partly owing to the delay of the national strategy, there is a huge lack of up-to-date legislation, both at a national level and in municipalities. For example, some municipal zoning legislation looks at flooding, but municipalities aren't obliged to implement the necessary adaptation measures when developing new urban areas.

“Others are developing with their eyes open and are starting to use adaptive planning strategies that can readjust accordingly once future predictions on sea levels and rainfall become clearer. But good planning does not assure implementation when funding and legislation is uncertain,” Holmbo say. At present, many municipalities are holding their breath while awaiting an update of the national strategy, because they are unsure what it will entail, and which subsidies it will provide. 

Currently a lack of deeper knowledge is also a barrier. The Danish Meteorological Institute has developed an interactive Climate Atlas based on updated data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet the atlas only predicts where it rains more, and where storm surges have become more likely. It doesn’t consider where excess rainwater goes, Sanderson continues. "We need better risk analysis. What we have today is too crude to tell us anything about where the real vulnerabilities are."

There is a general lack of awareness among Danish municipalities and regions about the EU’s 2021 approval of an updated climate adaptation strategy which calls for a "climate resilient Europe in 2050," several experts told Clean Energy Wire. The government is yet to define what climate resilience means in a Danish context.

Adaptation makes economic sense

On top of that, the Danish Climate Atlas doesn't consider the economic impacts of sea level rise, increasing rainfall, storm floods, and other meteorological impacts. The national climate adaptation plan is expected to investigate these issues once it is finally signed off.

"Damage due to flooding is expected to reach a three-digit billion number in the coming decades. So, adaptation could quickly make economic sense," says Sanderson. He also expects climate change to impact Danish people more directly in the coming years, as rising temperatures will facilitate faster spread of pathogens and diseases, and lead to rising deaths from summer heat waves — especially among the elderly.

As the multiple impacts of climate change become ever more apparent, it thus remains unclear whether ‘green pioneer’ Denmark and its capital Copenhagen are sufficiently prepared to change with it.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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