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Joint Nordic climate change adaptation ?

The effects of climate change have a strong transnational dimension as they do not respect political or administrative boundaries. This makes climate change collaboration networks between countries imperative. A strategic document coordinating climate change adaptation efforts in the Nordic Region would thus be welcomed by national actors. Despite the differences in territorial circumstances between the North Atlantic Islands and the Nordic countries on the European mainland, such a strategy, facilitated by the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM), could nevertheless still be expected to foster mutual learning and the exchange of experiences.

Climate change is the main topic of the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2011 and is thus prioritised on the political agenda in the Nordic Region. In this programme, the leading position of the Nordic countries and the importance of cooperation in this respect are emphasised: "We must, as a region, face up to the challenges of climate change in a pragmatic and result-oriented way. By working together, we will achieve better results and generate significant synergies" (NCM 2010, p. 9).

The potential impacts of climate change and how they are to be tackled differ between the Nordic countries due to their different geographies and economic structures. Sea level rise, changing precipitation patterns and increasing storm surges (and the resulting flooding) and their consequences for the built environment (e.g. infrastructure) are the most pressing issues in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland as well as in Iceland.

Adaptation work today in the North Atlantic Islands however concentrates on those economic sectors that are most dependent on natural resources such as fisheries (Greenland and the Faroe Islands) and hydropower production (Iceland) which might be affected by a changing climate.

Climate change adaptation in the Nordic Countries

As members of the European Union, the work on climate change adaptation in Sweden, Finland (including Åland) and Denmark is influenced by EU strategic documents such as the EU White Paper 'Adapting to climate change: Towards a European framework for action' and the EU Baltic Sea Region Strategy in which the 'Establishment of a regional adaptation strategy at the level of the Baltic Sea Region' is a strategic action (COM 2009). Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands follow EU policies only on a voluntary basis.

Nevertheless, adaptation to climate change has become a national level priority in all Nordic countries (see map) and numerous adaptation activities are currently ongoing at both the regional and local levels. Local initiatives are often however taken up by engaged individuals who lack policy signals and guidance from above while the experiences gained in such local processes are often not particularly well linked to long-term adaptation processes (Nilsson 2010).

Transnational cooperation on climate change adaptation

Transnational and cross-border cooperation between the Nordic countries is being fostered under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for instance within the Baltic Sea Region Programme. So far, three projects dealing specifically with climate change adaptation have been set up and involve local, regional and national partners from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway - among others - in climate adaptation work: BaltCICA , BALTADAPT and BalticClimate.

In addition, various institutions from across the Nordic countries are involved in nationally funded research projects and programmes in which respective actors cooperate and exchange knowledge. These networks are seen as both important and fruitful. The West Norden countries also meet within the Arctic Council where adaptation to climate change is being addressed in the Working Group on Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME).

Apart from the above-mentioned projects and networks however, very little additional cooperation is currently occurring between national authorities due to the lack of an identifiable focal point for climate change adaptation work in the Nordic countries.

Climate change adaptation at the Nordic level

Climate change adaptation as a cross cutting theme is often considered to be within the purview of the Ministry for Environment or its equivalent, but it is also of particular interest to e.g. the Council of Ministers for Fisheries and Aquaculture, Agriculture, Food and Forestry (MR-FJLS), Environment (MR-M), Education and Research (MR-U) and Business, Energy & Regional Policy (MR-NER).

The Committees of Senior Officials (CSO) - under the different themes of the Minister Councils (MR) - is the operational level of the NCM and forms a decisive platform for cooperation on specific policy areas. For example, an informal meeting was held in November 2010 where the Nordic ministers responsible for national and regional planning adopted an action plan 2011-2014 in which sustainable urban development and adaptation to climate change was a prioritised theme.

As a part of the CSO, permanent or temporary Nordic Working Groups for e.g. energy efficiency, renewable energy or global climate negotiations play an important role in ongoing discussions and climate work. The Working Group for the exchange of experience and knowledge development (Urban Policies) under the Committee of Senior Officials for Regional Policy (EK-R) addresses climate change adaptation in Nordic urban areas.

On the research side, a joint approach to climate change adaptation exists. Established by the NCM, the NordForsk organisation provides funding for cooperative research on adaptation through two programmes: (1) the Top-level Research Initiative with its sub-programme: Effect studies and adaptation to climate change and (2) Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation in Nordic Primary Industries. Here, a number of research projects are ongoing to support the Nordic countries in addressing climate change and potential challenges.

A joint Nordic approach to climate change adaptation?

In a series of interviews with national officials and researchers, both the need for strategic cooperation on climate change adaptation research and the importance of the exchange of experiences regarding the implementation of adaptation measures among the Nordic countries has been emphasised. Despite differences in the impact of climate change, population size, economic structure and challenges, several points were put forward as representing essential issues and opportunities:

General arguments for a joint approach to climate change adaptation centre not only on the opportunity for mutual research and learning but also on historical and geographical commonalities and similar legal frameworks which ease cooperation between the Nordic countries even on planning issues. A consensual common strategy could even encourage transnational learning between the Nordic countries that have not yet been cooperating on climate change adaptation and thus contribute to overcoming local conditions that may hamper successful adaptation work such as the lack of financial resources, expertise and labour. Furthermore, a common database is needed that makes information and data on climate change impacts and adaptation easily accessible while also providing appropriate tools.

A potential joint strategy on the Nordic level would help to raise awareness and communicate the breadth and seriousness of climate change to different administrative levels and to the general public. As governmental bodies are able to carry out cross-sectoral analysis within their respective countries, cooperation at the Nordic level could take advantage of this expertise.

A clear advantage is also seen here in respect of the exchange of certain experiences such as those in relation to adaptation cost assessment especially between EU and non-EU countries in the Nordic Region. The EU has extensive experience of different types of projects concerning adaptation and has been working on collating statistics relating to adaptation costs which is an issue that is integral to the member countries if they are to apply for funding to work on adaptation.

According to the interviewees, the Nordic Council of Ministers could be a potential facilitator perceived as having the resources, information (including contact details) and data available to coordinate a joint strategic approach to climate change adaptation. Research programmes (such as NordForsk), ongoing projects and the Nordic Working Groups that already exist under the NCM could serve as a starting point here. However, a common strategy would need to take into account the existence of different local circumstances and needs to ensure a sense of ownership. As one of the respondents stated, it will not make sense "if we do not feel at home in the strategy".

Concluding remarks

A joint Nordic approach to climate change adaptation in the form of a common strategy could create the following added value for the region: While coordinating adaptation efforts that are taken at all levels in the Nordic countries, the strategy could represent the long-term perspective that is needed when addressing climate change and supporting climate change adaptation on its way into all levels, sectors and institutions, i.e. "mainstreaming adaptation" (Nilsson 2010).

One possible strategy could function as a guiding framework and action plan for the highly complex issue of climate change adaptation by providing guidance 'from above' (top-down approach) and illuminating local examples 'from below' (bottom-up approach). Moreover, the strategy could play an important role as a knowledge broker between science (e.g. climate models and data) and practice (e.g. implementation of adaptation measures).

Facilitated by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the strategy could both ease and encourage cross-border cooperation and transnational learning by providing a discussion forum and focal point for all relevant national authorities and policy units. As climate change adaptation is a cross-cutting issue, a common strategy could link the issues that are of relevance in each policy field.

The strategy could also provide data and tools for climate change adaptation work at the regional level where Nordic cooperation could make a difference compared to the efforts taking place e.g. only at the national level, as it would have a larger impact on policy development. A joint approach to climate change adaptation could also strengthen the Nordic position vis-a-vis other regions (e.g. the Baltic Sea Region) and countries (e.g. Russia).

The Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) is well placed to facilitate cooperation between the Nordic countries. The strategic position of the NCM provides both a good overview of numerous actions at different policy levels in various policy fields and the ability to connect and align these dispersed activities according to the specific needs of the region. A possible joint strategy on climate change adaptation could be elaborated with input from the Nordic Working Groups within a new CSO (to be established) or an already existing CSO (e.g. Committee of Senior Officials for Regional Policy, EK-R).


This article is based on a literature review and telephone interviews conducted during March and April 2011 and complemented by e-mail communication (June 2010) with national actors from four Nordic countries and two autonomous areas. The authors would also like to thank José Sterling who produced the map as well as Lisa Van Well, Klaus Georg Hansen and Ole Damsgaard for valuable input and comments.

Stefanie Lange Scherbenske

Research Fellow


Aslı Tepecik Diş

Research Fellow


COM (Commission of the European Communities). 2009. European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region – Action Plan. SEC (2009) 712/2.

EEA (European Environment Agency). 2009. National Adaptation Strategies. climate/national-adaptation-strategies.

NCM (Nordic Council of Ministers) 2010. The Nordic Region: A Green Climate Leader. Programme for the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers 2011. Copenhagen.

Nilsson, A.E. (2010): A tidal wave of adaptation science, practice and policy. Summary of Conference highlights. Climate Adaptation in the Nordic Countries – Science, Practice, Policy. 8.-10. November 2010 in Stockholm.

Programme area: Denmark, Germany, Poland, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.
BaltCICA project: Climate Change: Impacts, Costs and Adaptation in the Baltic Sea Region,
BALTADAPT project: Baltic Sea Region Climate Change Adaptation Strategy,
BalticClimate project: Baltic challenges and chances for local and regional development generated by Climate Change,
Project example: NordKlim-Adapt project:
Member states: Canada, Denmark including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States of America
More information about the councils of the NCM:
More information about the CSOs:
Nordisk Handlingsprogram 2011-2014 - Planlægning som instrument for bæredygtig udvikling i Norden
More information on the Nordic Working Groups:
E.g. the seminar: Stadplaneringens utmaningar i ett förändrat klimat:
Project examples: Nordic Centre of Excellence (NCoE) NORD-STAR (Nordic Strategic Adaptation Research) and NOBILITI project: Nordic Climate Cooperation on the Municipal Level