Climate change adaptation

Action plan for managing ground conditions in the built environment.

Climate change is expected to have serious impacts on housing and infrastructure. No Swedish national strategy yet exists to facilitate the planning required to act upon it. The Swedish Geotechnical Institute (SGI) has, therefore, developed an action plan for adaptation of land use and ground constructions in the built environment.

Adaptation to climate change, particularly flood risks, may come to pose large challenges, in the future, and will require cooperation among a range of stakeholders. The new action plan, for managing ground conditions in the changing climate, proposes a framework for delivering adaptation action, at all community levels: national, regional and local.

Not only does adaptation help ensure that our urban environments are more robust in the face of an inevitable climate change, but it offers opportunities, as well. By building adaptive capacity and delivering sound adaptation solutions, we can make cities more attractive, with a better quality of life.

Action plan

Effective adaptation, in the built environment, needs to be supported by robust policy, a good knowledge base and a range of incentives to ensure delivery on the ground. Our hope is that the action plan will be supportive of this process. Bringing forward new digital bases such as maps, decision support tools and guidance on climate change effects on ground conditions, is a cornerstone of the action plan.

The action plan describes key guiding measures and specific activities by which authorities and the construction industry can deliver climate change adaptations for managing ground conditions. Insurance providers may have much to contribute, as they offer other parts of society services to appropriately identify, assess and reduce the financial impacts of climate change induced risks.

The action plan highlights the need to explore the distribution of liability, for example, the costs from flooding between public authorities and the private insurance sector. To address this issue, the action plan proposes activities to examine how the commercial insurance industry and public authorities can coordinate their actions to promote climate change adaptation.

Key climate adaptation messages

Seek opportunities to incorporate adaptation into new and existing developments. Planners, designers and developers need to work together to ensure that any new development or reconstruction takes climate change impacts into account. There are many ways to facilitate adaptation.

While it is often more cost-effective to adapt new developments at the planning and design stages, restoration efforts also offer significant opportunities to incorporate adaptation. The action plan proposes measures to increase respect for ground conditions throughout the Swedish civil process from planning, design and construction, management, demolition and restoration.

  • Measures for knowledge building are proposed, for all processes.
  • Work in partnership with communities.
  • Engagement of national and regional authorities with local communities and the construction industry is crucial for developing adaptation actions that will work in practice.

The action plan highlights the advantages of partnerships, between the public and private sectors, to form a fundamental part of the process of developing sufficient knowledge of the effects of climate change on ground conditions, to be able to make the right decisions for both new and existing developments.

Incorporate flexibility to deal with changing risks

Incorporate flexibility to deal with changing risks. Adaptation efforts must incorporate sufficient flexibility to deal with changing climate risks over time. The most appropriate responses will differ, depending on the scale on which they operate – from conurbation, to neighbourhoods, to building scales.

Several large scale monitoring activities

The action plan concentrates on several large scale monitoring activities, risk assessments and mapping to facilitate long-term planning and management of ground condition risks. A better basis is a prerequisite for assessing and incorporating both current and likely future climatic risks to ground conditions into development plans.

It is vital to ensure that development does not constrain our ability to deal with land stability risks, in the future. If well designed and integrated, strategies for management of ground conditions, such as vegetated slopes and managed realignment, can provide amenity by enhancing the quality of public places. 

Understand existing vulnerabilities to climate and identify critical thresholds. The imperative for adaptation is greatest in areas that are already vulnerable to climate risks. The Swedish coastal communities and infrastructure will be will be very vulnerable to sea level rise.

It can lead to large claims costs and parts of the Swedish cultural heritage being lost, unless climate change adaptation measures are implemented. Understanding how sea level rise will affect an area and identifying the critical thresholds – such as when ground conditions become unsuitable for developments – can help determine when and what adaptation actions to undertake.

The action plan suggests that concerned authorities, together with the insurance industry, are consolidating to increase knowledge on how the changing conditions should be managed, to minimize vulnerabilities and possible claim costs.

Future sea levels

Identify key climate change risks for ground conditions using the latest climate change scenarios. Knowledge about climate change effects on ground conditions and geo-constructions is still, to a large extent, to be developed.

The action plan points to the need for more knowledge of, for example, long-term ground constructability in the changing climate and how coastal management is to be developed to handle the rising sea level, together with increasing shore erosion.

The latest climate change scenarios for Sweden are provided by the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI). Before summer of this year, new data will be provided by SMHI on future sea levels along Swedish coastal areas – this information will be essential for future risk management and relocation plans.

It has become very clear, while developing the action plan, that there is a strong demand by the stakeholders involved in land and ground construction, for a new complementary basis and guidelines on the effects of climate change on ground conditions. More research and development is needed on changing ground and geo-construction conditions, models for risk analysis and practical guidance on how existing and new developments can be adapted.

Sweden is the only Member State in the European Union that is still lacking a national strategy and action plan for climate change adaptation. However, there is a well-developed structure of regional action plans, as well as about 10 sectorial action plans, at the national level.

Streemline planning

The design of the action plan, for managing ground conditions in a changing climate, is underpinned by SGI's instruction, issued by the government, to be proactive and maintain a coordinating role in its field, to identify the levels of knowledge and disseminate new knowledge, to streamline the planning and construction process.

Dialogues have been implemented, in various meeting forms, with about 70 organizations, mainly from the public administration, but also with representatives of industry and academia. A total of 200 stakeholders gave their views on what needs to be done to achieve ground constructions adapted to a changing climate and how SGI can be supportive, in that effort.

The feedback from the outside world, via close to 90 consultation responses on the action plan before it was adopted, showed a positive engagement – both to SGI's initiative for developing an action plan for adaptation of land and ground condition management, and to the overall approach.

About Swedish Geotechnical Institute

The Swedish Geotechnical Institute (SGI) is an expert agency that works for a safe, efficient and sustainable development and sustainable use of land and natural resources. The mission includes the prevention of landslides and coastal erosion, sustainable and effective soil works, know-how and methods to remediate contaminated sites and climate adaption.

In its role as an expert agency, SGI collects, develops and distributes knowledge to society. This knowledge is attained through research, consultancy and cooperation with others, both nationally and internationally. Knowledge dissemination and provision of advisory services is part of the role in supporting municipalities, county councils and other authorities throughout Sweden on geotechnical issues.

SGI was established by the Government in 1944 to "strengthen geotechnical research and to support state agencies with construction operations". Today, there are about 90 employees.


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Article by

Kerstin Konitzer

Climate Change Strategist, SGI

David Bendz

Head of Research and Development, SGI

Article published in Risk Consulting Magazine 1/2017