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Climate – the good, the bad and the unpredictable

Depending on where you are and how you adapt, climate change can mean an adventure or a nightmare. In Denmark and the other Nordic countries, there will be both advantages and disadvantages – but there is no way we can get round serious adaptation.

2015.04.29 | Janne Hansen

Professor Jørgen E. Olesen is an expert in the agricultural sector's impact on the climate and the effects of climate change on food production. He has participated in a number of expert groups on a national and international level, including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Danish government's nature and agriculture commission. FOTO: Lise Balsby)

Professor Jørgen E. Olesen is an expert in the agricultural sector's impact on the climate and the effects of climate change on food production. He has participated in a number of expert groups on a national and international level, including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Danish government's nature and agriculture commission. (FOTO: Lise Balsby)

In the cities and coastal areas, we must be prepared to withstand more floods, while we can look forward to producing new crops in the countryside, such as sunflowers, vines and maize. (FOTO: Colourbox)

In the cities and coastal areas, we must be prepared to withstand more floods, while we can look forward to producing new crops in the countryside, such as sunflowers, vines and maize. (FOTO: Colourbox)

Imagine a situation in which the landscape has been parched by the heat for weeks. You drive past fields where rows of erect sunflowers are turning their faces towards the sun. The scenery provides some degree of variation because the sun is also beating down on vineyards. A bit further on, you arrive at the west coast of the country, where your family had a beach house for generations, but it disappeared ages ago. It simply drifted into the sea due to erosion of the sand dune it was built on. Tourists now occupy beach houses located further inland in the changing countryside.

This image could very well be Denmark in a few decades. Global warming is changing the climatic conditions that have an impact on a considerable number of factors in our cities, coasts, aquatic environment, nature and the agricultural landscape. Climate change will offer new opportunities, problems and challenges. It is important that we understand what we are up against and how we can adapt to climate change.

We have to adapt to climate change

Climate change is already taking place and we have reached the stage where it is no longer sufficient to simply discuss what can be done to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases responsible for human-induced global warming. We must now get on with finding solutions so we can adapt to climate change.

“Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, it wouldn’t slow down their impact immediately. Global warming would still continue for many years to come. We must therefore adapt to the changed conditions no matter what,” says Professor Jørgen E. Olesen, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University.

Together with Professor Erik Jeppesen, Department of Bioscience, he is co-author of a report that looks at the consequences of a changing climate, and our vulnerability and adaptation to climate change as regards our cities, aquatic environment, nature, coasts, and food production and supply. The report was published by the Danish Nature Agency and provides a brief account of the United Nations’ Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) prepared by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

A varied picture

So what are we up against? And what should we do in order to live with climate change? On the whole, the effects expected by Denmark will be influenced by weather conditions that are less predictable, more extreme and hotter. Water will also play a significant role – and there will be both too much and too little of it.

“The Danish climate will be hotter all year round, with more rain in winter and more drought in summer. We’ll also experience more torrential rain and other forms of extreme weather, and floods and droughts will be more severe,” explains Professor Olesen.

Climate change will provide Denmark with both advantages and disadvantages. In the cities and coastal areas, we must be prepared to withstand more floods, while we can look forward to producing new crops in the countryside, such as sunflowers, vines and maize. It will be difficult to maintain the current ecosystems in land and aquatic areas, and the coasts risk being swallowed up by the sea.

Protection against higher sea levels will be expensive

In a climate context, Denmark is not a desert island. The impact of climate change on other parts of the world will affect Denmark in a considerable number of areas. One of them is that the sea level will rise in response to the ice melting at the poles. We will probably experience a rise in sea level of 70 centimetres or more during the course of the 21st century.

In relation to gross domestic product (GDP), Denmark is one of the five countries in Europe facing the highest damage costs due to the rising sea level. We therefore need to think about protecting the coast – but Denmark is also one of the countries that will cost most in coastal protection because we have such a long coastline. If nothing is done, the restoration and compensation costs will be much higher – six times as high according to estimates at EU level.

Global warming will affect Denmark’s options in the production and export of food products. On the plus side, Denmark will have better opportunities to export more food products when agricultural production in the southern countries fails due to drought and water shortages. Increased temperatures are already providing a longer growing season for the benefit of agriculture and forestry, and fishermen are finding new species in the Danish fishing grounds.

Biggest plus to food production

The picture appears to be varied and complex. To understand the ins and outs of the effects we are going to experience as a result of climate change, and to provide an overview of what areas we need to adapt to, it is necessary to take things one at a time. Let us begin with something we all require – food.

The United Nations estimates that the world will double its production of crops up to 2050 as a result of the growing population and improved standard of living. This can benefit Danish food production.

In the Nordic countries, we will find that the growing season gets longer due to higher temperatures. A longer and hotter growing season will mean increased yields of many crops. The greatest increase in yields will be in the crops that are best suited to a longer growing season, such as grass, beets and maize. We will also be able to cultivate completely new crops, such as sunflowers and vines.

“If we’re to contribute to increasing food production, we have to look at how to utilise the longer growing season as well as possible. We can do this by cultivating other crops or other varieties that are better able to cope with the new climate conditions. We must also think about how to make use of the new climate conditions to maximise biomass production. We have to move away from corn and more towards beets, grass and miscanthus (elephant grass), which can be used for biorefinery in protein and energy production,” says Professor Olesen.

Obstacles along the way

Food production in Denmark will not be completely trouble-free in the future. A warmer climate will result in more evaporation, thus increasing the risk of drought in the summer. This will mean a greater need for watering the fields, especially for crops with a long growing period. On the other hand, more precipitation will increase the need for drainage.

The increasing variability of the weather and more extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves, droughts, storms, and intense and persistent precipitation will lead to an increase in production variability, reduced productivity, and more uncertainty for producers. It will also affect our livestock, which can suffer from heat stress and produce less milk and meat.

A warmer climate also results in changed conditions for pests such as parasites and insects, and diseases in both plants and livestock, which can affect productivity. In plant production, this can lead to an increased need for plant protection, including pesticides, which can have an impact on the environment. There can be a number of vector-borne diseases in livestock – including diseases that can spread to humans. This will require closer monitoring of livestock diseases.

There are many opportunities for increased agricultural production in Denmark, but this will involve greater pressure on the environment and nature. The consequences can be more pressure on water resources for irrigation and deteriorating conditions for the aquatic environment. This brings us to another important area – water.

Strain on the aquatic environment

The aquatic environment will be more vulnerable because the climate is getting warmer, and the heat will provide better conditions for the growth of algae. At the same time, we can expect more leaching of nutrients into the aquatic environment, partly due to more torrential rain and partly due to the intensification of food production.

The conflict between the need for increased food production and the need for ensuring a healthy aquatic environment will become more intense with a warmer climate. Resolving this conflict requires the development of radical new technology in food production, and changes to human lifestyle, such as eating less meat.

When talking about water, there is also talk about floods – and there will be more of them. In global terms, there has become more sea and less land in the last century. Throughout the entire 20th century, the global sea level rose by 1.7 millimetres per year, but it has risen by 3.2 millimetres per year since 1993. This development will be more pronounced in the 21st century.

Flooding is no longer linked to increased sea levels alone. It can also occur because:

  • precipitation is heavier than the soil can soak up.
  • the groundwater level rises to the ground surface.
  • the water level in streams and water pipes rises to the edge, and the water flows onto the ground.

The increased sea level will lead to coastal erosion, floods and pollution of freshwater resources. In many places, it will be more difficult to find sufficient sand for the artificial stabilisation of beaches and dunes. The more the sea rises, the worse the situation will become.

Cities in water up to your knees

Floods in Europe will affect an increasing number of people, and material losses will be doubled or even tripled by 2080. It is therefore important to adequately plan for the long-term perspective as regards future rises in sea level.

Flooding is a particular problem in urban areas, where there is a greater concentration of people and buildings. Urban areas are generally very vulnerable. In addition to suffering serious damage caused by extreme weather events such as torrential rain, heatwaves, hurricanes and storm surges, cities are exposed to urban warming – the urban heat island (UHI) effect. This means that the cities themselves are warmer, and this increases the need for climate change adaptation.

Climate change can have an impact on the urban infrastructure in the form of water and energy supply, drainage systems, transport and IT, as well as health, housing and ecosystems.

Nature will suffer

Nature is also facing challenges. According to the report from the Danish Nature Agency, the Danish woods, lakes and streams will predominantly be adversely affected as a result of increasing temperatures. The ecosystems will change because many species of fauna and flora will either move away or become extinct. And others – the invasive species – will move in.

Spring will begin earlier, which can mean that the different species in the food chain will be out of sync with each other and miss out on important opportunities to gather food. There will also be changes in the frequency of disease attacks.

Coinciding with the changes taking place in nature, the ecosystems will become less stable. This means that they will be more vulnerable to the impact of more violent changes when extreme events occur, such as increased precipitation and particularly warm periods.

However, it is not all bad. A longer growing season combined with an increased level of CO2 in the air provides favourable growing conditions so that more biomass is produced – and this can be a benefit for deciduous woodlands in particular.

Nature – including the aquatic environment – can be provided with a helping hand to withstand climate change by a number of initiatives that involve re-establishing nature or creating new urban nature reserves.

The way to a climate-resilient future

The effects of climate change will cost a considerable amount of money. If we do not prepare for these effects and adapt to climate change, it will cost even more.

It is not enough to buy umbrellas and sand sacks. Climate change adaptation must begin at specific places in specific contexts. It is also necessary to ensure that the plans currently being made are sufficiently strong. Measures that are implemented must be assessed on an ongoing basis and adjusted according to their cost, efficiency and flexibility. Planning provides an opportunity to reduce costs by adapting.

It is impossible to forecast with any certainty just how the emission of greenhouse gases will develop in the future and how societal development will appear over a longer period. There is also an element of uncertainty connected with predictions of floods, health risks, water shortages, extreme events, loss of biodiversity and other secondary effects of climate change. It is therefore crucial that climate change adaptations are flexible.

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