DATE: December 16, 2019
SNIP: With unprecedented sea level rise forecast as a result of climate change, the Dutch government is racing against the clock to figure out how to keep one of the world’s richest countries from disappearing into the North Sea.
In more optimistic scenarios, the feted Dutch dikes, storm barriers, pumps, and adaptations can cope, but at a cost — and even then only up to a point.
“On the other end of the spectrum is controlled abandonment, which isn’t nice, because we somehow need to lead 10 million people somewhere,” said Maarten Kleinhans, professor of geosciences and physical geography at Utrecht University. “And as soon as this gets known, as soon as the shit hits the fan, there won’t be any investments anymore and local economies will collapse.”
A certain amount of sea rise is already inevitable, set in motion by global warming and ice melting caused by decades of carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that collates and assesses scientific results, predicts 30 to 60 centimeters of sea rise by 2100, even if countries make good on their pledges to cut emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement. The quicker emissions are cut, the lesser the risk of unmanageable rise. But so far, the developed world is failing to meet its targets.
If emissions continue on current trends, the IPCC predicts 84 centimeters of sea rise by 2100, and as much as 5.4 meters by 2300. The IPCC has also warned that a rise of more than a meter by 2100 is not unlikely, and advised at-risk countries to plan accordingly. Such a rapid rise, with accelerating increases likely to follow, would leave many countries powerless to respond on time.
Just how many meters of rise the Netherlands can deal with depends on the time it has to prepare, but it is in low to mid-single digits. According to the Dutch government, current defenses are adequate up to 2050. Improving them is slow work: The last 30 years of flood defense works in the Netherlands allowed it to deal with just 40 more centimeters of sea level rise.
The options available also come with trade-offs. Sand can be deposited on beaches — if there is enough time, and enough sand. Dikes can be raised, but this leaves those living inside them at greater risk if things go wrong. They are also porous: Water can be pumped out, but salt cannot. As a result, the salination of the land increases, with consequences for Dutch agriculture.
Storm barriers can be shut, but this blocks shipping to the port of Rotterdam, which accounts for a significant chunk of the Dutch economy. Interference with the shoreline also affects the Dutch fishing industry. And if the land is below sea level, the rivers that flow over it need to be pumped out over the barriers to the sea, which costs energy.
There is a point at which it doesn’t make financial sense to save the land.
The Netherlands is set to miss its target to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. This summer, seven political parties from the left and right banded together to pass a climate change law aimed at slashing emissions by 95 percent by 2050. But attempts to follow up with action have been met with fierce lobbying from those affected.
Dutch farmers blockaded cities across the Netherlands with their tractors in October in protest against government efforts to curb nitrogen pollution, which is largely caused by the farming and construction industries.
The army was brought in to defend The Hague, and four regional governments suspended the measures under the pressure. This was followed by similar protests by construction workers with trucks and diggers that caused traffic jams stretching 380 kilometers, according to the traffic authority ANWB.
“This will have repercussions for many decades and centuries. It takes a very brave politician to take on,” said Utrecht University’s van den Broeke. “There is still a significant part of the Dutch population that is not aware or not interested in these problems, so it does require strong leadership to make these changes.”