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Germany's floods highlight need for climate action

Ban Ki-moon The Global Commission on Adaptation
Ban Ki-moon
August 1, 2021

As scientists warn that increased flooding marks the end of a stable climate, we must step up our efforts to minimize the damage caused by extreme weather events, write Ban Ki-moon and Patrick Verkooijen.

A shrunken globe floating on water
Scientists are warning that we need to adapt fast in order to mitigate the extent of climate catastrophesImage: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Ohde

The recent catastrophic flooding across the Rhine basin and into Belgium and the Netherlands must be taken as a warning by countries across Europe and elsewhere of the increasingly urgent need to do more to adapt to and prepare for climate change.

The full cost of the damage is not yet known, but repairs are likely to run into billions and take many months.

While it is too early to know precisely the extent of climate change, scientists fear that damage caused by emissions is producing even worse extreme weather events than predicted. Brutal heatwaves seen recently along the western seaboard of the United States and Canada, as well as in Siberia and other parts of the world, are further evidence of an increasingly hostile climate — and the need to adapt to it, fast.

A global problem

The pictures from Germany underscore the dangers that climate change poses even to the world's most advanced economies. While Europe has done more than most to attempt to mitigate the risks — the European Commission recently proposed the most ambitious package of climate measures yet by a major economy — these will not reverse changes that have already happened. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for about 100 years. 

A certain amount of warming — and the extreme weather events associated with it — is already baked into our future making adaptation a necessity even if the Paris Agreement targets are met. Scientists warn that the recent floods and heatwaves are not the new normal, rather they herald the end of a stable climate. And without action, according to the World Bank, up to 132 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by climate change by 2030.

A combi-photo of Patrick Verkooijen (left) and Ban Ki-moon
Patrick Verkooijen (left) and Ban Ki-moonImage: Global Center on Adaptation

These warnings must urge us into faster action, with more funding, to adapt and find ways to work with the natural world rather than against it.

By accelerating investment today, we can prevent billions — even trillions —worth of economic damage and save many thousands of lives. A Global Commission on Adaptation report found that investing $1.8 trillion (€1.5 trillion) globally by 2030 in just five key areas, including climate-resilient infrastructure, such as stronger dams and drainage systems, and early warning systems could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits. 

Some excellent climate-resilience projects already exist. In Germany, the new district of HafenCity within Hamburg is being built on raised plinths, lifting the whole area at least eight meters above sea level. In the Netherlands, engineers have been working on "Room for the River," a program to widen and deepen the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Waal and IJssel to protect nearby cities and towns. Besides creating additional water channels, flood-prone buildings have been removed and additional storage basins created with farmers co-operating to allow agricultural areas to be flooded as required.

In China, where floods have caused on average ¥251 billion ($38 billion, €33 billion) of damage annually in the decade to 2016, so-called sponge cities such as Xiangyang Han River Eco City now feature more water-absorbent areas including green roofs, fewer hard surfaces, and more efficient water channels and storage.

Sharing success

On their own, however, these projects are not enough. One of the greatest challenges of climate adaptation is that responsibility spans many diverse authorities, at the local, regional and national level.

Extreme heat, floods and storms also require precautionary planning and upfront investment in adaptation measures.

This makes it imperative that we share successful strategies and transfer knowledge and solutions wherever appropriate. To understand the scale of action needed, as well as measure success, governments and the private sector must carry out climate vulnerability assessments and stress tests to evaluate the risk of damage from flooding and heat stress. They must incorporate the resulting data into planning and investments, and closely monitor progress toward greater resilience.

We need to act fast. Gathering detailed knowledge will also allow us to better protect vulnerable groups, which usually suffer disproportionately more.

These recent extreme weather events have shown that the climate emergency is an all-of-society and all-of-world problem. It is encouraging to read that the US and the EU are planning to increase their contributions to help developing countries fight climate change, but all developed countries must now deliver on their promise to jointly mobilize $100 billion a year in finance for both mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. 

As the floods in Europe and China have shown, we need to accelerate adaptation efforts worldwide to ensure we are as well placed as possible to deal with whatever our newly unstable climate unleashes next. And we need to do it now.

Ban Ki-moon is 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation in Rotterdam.