Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

No. 104: Climate adaptation in local governance: Institutional barriers in Danish municipalities

Jensen, A., Nielsen, H.Ø. & Nielsen, M.L. 2016. Climate adaption in local governance: Institutional barriers in Danish municipalities. Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 102 pp. Scientific Report from DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy No. 104. http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR104.pdf


This study examines one of the key challenges for contemporary planning and politics, namely the formulation and implementation of policy actions to manage the impacts of climate change and the promotion of climate adaptation. In this report, we focus on local level government, as the local level plays a key role for implementation of climate adaptation policies. In Denmark, national climate adaptation policy has set up a framework while the national policies are implemented at local level, where the policies are modified to local conditions and local climate vulnerabilities. We take as a point of departure that the ability of local government to provide adequate policy responses to environmental stresses such as climate change is intimately linked to the institutional setting of local policy making and planning. Hence, we investigate institutional barriers for adaptation to climate changes in local government. The study has been conducted during 2012-2013, and involved a literature review, case studies of three Danish municipalities and a survey involving all Danish municipalities.

The study has showed that one of the foremost determinants of proactive local climate adaption policy is political and executive leadership at the local level. Where leadership took up adaptation, attention could be kept also after immediate experiences with flooding, and climate adaptation policy was promoted and placed high on local agendas, ensuring that adaptation issues were appeared within other policy areas, e.g. urban development, land use planning and business development.

Leadership that was quick to frame climate adaptation measures and policies as also benefitting other policy areas paved a way for giving priority to climate adaptation measures that may be costly and/or involve conflicts over space. Thus the ability to recognize and take advantages of synergies in the short and long term investments was important and opened options for acting quicker, for example with inclusion of water retaining green and blue spaces in development of urban areas, and with new architecture in regeneration.

In addition the size of the municipality was significant. The larger municipalities had built and could maintain expertise that they felt were necessary to handle the complexity associated with adapting to climate change, including within anticipated areas rather than remaining with addressing areas where events had shown it necessary to implement actions. Furthermore, the larger municipalities could invest the resources necessary for developing and implementing a long term strategy to adapt the area and minimize the risks and costs associated with present and future climate changes. In addition, the larger municipalities could facilitate and take advantage of networks with other governance institutions, business, public associations, etc. within challenging areas of adaptation. Moreover, it was striking how significant prior experience with climate adaptation was for pushing adaptation up on local policy agendas.

Moreover, some adaptation measures, such as allocation of green spaces to water retention, involved conflicts over land use stretching far into other policy areas and where these sensitive areas were not addressed, it blocked to some extent local adaptive actions.

We would like to express sincere thanks to the participating municipal planners and policy makers who invested time and energy in providing data for our research. Furthermore, we wish to thank the former Coordination Unit for Research in Climate Change Adaptation Research.