Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Energy

Sweden mulls the cost to save communities from rising sea

Press play to listen to this article

SKANÖR, Sweden — On January 4, 2017, a day of clear skies and light winds on Sweden’s far southwestern Falsterbonäset peninsula, the flood warning went out. 

Rescue services scrambled to help motorists trapped on local roads after unusual winds offshore sent sea water surging toward the villages of Skanör, Ljunghusen and Höllviken.

One isolated cottage was partially submerged. 

By around 8 p.m., the water was already receding, and while the villagers could breathe a sigh of relief, officials in the municipal offices the in nearby town of Vellinge were realizing that a bullet had just been dodged.  

“If there had been a strong onshore wind that day, it could have been a catastrophe,” said Carina Wutzler, mayor of Vellinge Municipality. “We would have seen a lot more damage.”

The pressing question for lawmakers in such areas across Europe and beyond is what should be saved and how, and at what cost to public budgets and the natural environment, from catastrophic events that are due to become more frequent as the global climate heats up.

“I still get people saying that flooding is not going to happen, and I say to them it is already happening,” Wutzler said. “We need protection now, this is not something for 50 years’ time.”

The Falsterbonäset peninsula, which is covered by the Vellinge administration, is an affluent mix of high-end summer homes and commuter belt luxury living. It is one of 18 coastal spots on a Swedish government list of areas at risk of flooding as the climate warms, polar ice melts, sea levels rise and storms intensify. 

Arguably the most vulnerable place on that list, the peninsula is a prime example of the type of low-lying European coastline, inhabited in many cases for centuries, which now suddenly faces an uncertain future.

Climatologists and oceanographers are warning local lawmakers in exposed villages from Fairbourne in Wales to Germany’s Halligen islands that new and potentially expensive challenges lie ahead as coastal flooding becomes more common and more damaging. Around half of the peninsula’s 8,800 homes stand on land less than 3 meters above sea level. 

Even under the very lowest scenarios for global greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2100, scientists expect sea level to rise between 28 and 55 centimeters. Under the highest emissions scenario, seas could rise by more than a meter. And projections from the European Environment Agency suggest that flooding events that currently come once a century to Skanör will occur six times more frequently by the end of the century.

Hard choices 

European lawmakers aiming to hold back the sea generally look to the Netherlands, long the Continent’s gold standard in flood management.

With much of its territory below sea level, the country has already deployed a 3,700km string of flood defenses ranging from natural features like sand dunes to imposing feats of engineering like storm surge barriers. 

Experts say that as sea levels rise, a wider range of European leaders must now address similar challenges. But first, there’s a more fundamental question: Should anything be done at all?

In Falsterbonäset, environmentalists had long pushed for little or no response to the rising flood threat, arguing that the area’s coastal meadows and beaches, home to many plants and animals, depended on their interaction with the sea for their existence. 

The council for the county of Skåne, which includes Vellinge municipality, was also among those pushing back against building barriers through sensitive coastal ecosystems. 

Sand dunes protecting the Swedish village of Skanör from the sea are expected to be breached more regularly over coming years | Charlie Duxbury for POLITICO

“One of the big challenges, as the county council sees it, is finding space [for the barrier] without unacceptable intrusions into protected areas,” Maria Nitare, a water management official with the county council, said during a visit to Falsterbonäset. 

But in 2014, Vellinge municipality decided to take a stand and began consultations for a plan to build a 20km long barrier of embankments, walls and dunes round the built-up parts of Falsterbonäset. The planned barrier was to be 3 meters high, relative to sea level.

The application was submitted in 2018 after discussions with a wide range of interested parties from local residents and business owners to oceanographers and climatologists.

The proposal was initially approved by planning authorities, but then, in a sign of what could be waiting for other Swedish municipalities facing the threat of flooding, the process stalled. There were objections from some that the barriers went too far and from others that they didn’t go far enough.

One particularly vocal group were local golf course owners, who have found to their consternation that they won’t be protected by the municipality’s barriers. 

Falsterbonäset is home to several golf courses and is something of a national center for the sport. Visited on a recent weekday, the course in Ljunghusen was hosting a tournament for pairs of brothers to play against each other. 

Club manager Magnus Jivén described how in 2017, he watched in dismay as the sea crept closer to the front door of the clubhouse. To his relief, the building wasn’t flooded. 

“If you look at the Netherlands, they would build barriers out in the sea, but here the golf courses and the beaches aren’t being protected,” he said. “These places are some of the main reasons why people live here, so why not protect them as well as the houses.” 

Other objections have come from local residents who say the proposed embankments and walls will block their view of the sea as well as impinging on their privacy as people walking on the new embankments will be able to see into nearby gardens and houses. 

“The barrier is going to be right outside my fence,” Yvonne Lendrup, a Ljunghusen resident who has objected to the municipality plan, told national broadcaster SVT recently. “We’d really like to avoid this happening.”

Ljunghusen is seen as one of the most desirable places to live in Sweden. One house there recently sold for more than €5 million and on a recent weekday, two red Ferrari sports cars navigated the area’s narrow roads in quick succession. 

In the early days of its flood barrier project in 2015, Vellinge Municipality estimated combined property values in Falsterbonästet at more than €5 billion and officials said prices have risen sharply since then.

The municipal council judged that if it did not provide a credible plan to protect the area over the coming decades, then residents and businesses could be expected to pull out as insurance premiums rocket and the risk of inundation intesifies.

The cost of the new flood defenses is expected to be around €19 million. Vellinge has applied to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency for funding as well as to the EU via its Life program, but has said it will cover any shortfall through its own budget.

Test case

For the other 17 Swedish sites judged by the government as at risk of flooding — including parts of the capital Stockholm and second city Gothenburg, as well as smaller towns like Kristianstad — Vellinge is proving an interesting test case serving to highlight gaps in the national response to the threat of climate change. 

As Vellinge worked to develop its plans for flood barriers, mayor Wutzler said she had seen “surprisingly little interest” from ministers and other parliamentarians in the capital Stockholm and called on them to engage more closely with coastal communities facing existential threats from higher seas. 

A first report from a government-appointed expert group said Sweden’s response to climate change must be integrated more closely with other elements of the nation’s civil defense. 

“We must shift the focus from problems to solutions and from planning to implementation,” the report published in February said. “The efforts that have been made so far have not been able to create the necessary changes in society.”

Environmentalists worry that building flood barriers through coastal meadows around Sweden’s Falsterbonäset peninsula will damage important habitats | Charlie Duxbury for POLITICO

In June this year, the Swedish court of appeal responsible for environmental and land management ruled that construction of the barriers around Falsterbonäset could begin. 

Wutzler said it was a relief and that construction of the first section of the barriers north of Skanör would begin within a year. 

“We are developing a solution so that we have an answer when we look ahead. Because when we look ahead, we see that the threat from flooding is only going to get worse,” she said. 

Karl Mathiesen contributed reporting.

This article is part of the Climate, Changed series.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology


Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights


Customized policy intelligence platform


A high-level public affairs network

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

Europe

NATO countries urgently need to boost weapons production, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned ahead of a meeting of the alliance’s ministers this week....

Europe

BERLIN — In a new effort to attract talented foreign workers to the country, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced plans to reform Germany’s immigration system...

Europe

LONDON — Rishi Sunak sought to up his rhetoric on China on Monday while carefully opening the door to further talks with President Xi...

Technology

PARIS — Brussels wants media concentration to become a European Union issue. French billionaire Vincent Bolloré is testing how serious it is. The European...

Technology

Press play to listen to this article Voiced by artificial intelligence. Spain is proving the most troublesome country to probe in EU lawmakers’ ongoing...

Europe

KYIV — It’s all about the weapons — and we’ll do everything to get them to Kyiv.  That was the message from Nordic and...

Energy

Italy’s top disaster official warned Monday that the whole country is “at risk,” after a deadly mudslide Saturday tore across the island of Ischia,...

Europe

Press play to listen to this article Voiced by artificial intelligence. The French left has seldom been so united — and rarely so divided....