Climate adaptation policies for the coastal zone

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In this article policy strategies are discussed for tackling the challenges of climate adaptation for the coastal zone. It should be read in conjunction with the Coastal Wiki articles Climate adaptation measures for the coastal zone and Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM). Parts of this page are based on a paper by Dronkers and Stojanovic (2016)[1]. The important issue of climate adaptation in coastal cities is dealt with in a separate article Coastal cities and sea level rise.

Urgency of climate adaptation

Climate change, and sea level rise in particular, is a major threat for many coastal zones [2] (see also the article Sea level rise). Many coastal zones around the world are already lying around or even below high-water sea levels, especially coastal delta plains and small islands. The wave climate is also expected to become more extreme in various regions of the world, in particular in coastal areas south of the equator, but also in coastal areas around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea (Mentaschi etal., 2015[3]; Metel et al., 2018[4]). Soil subsidence, saline intrusion and water shortage add to the vulnerability (Deltares, 2105)[5], which is further exacerbated by fast population growth (Barragan et al., 2015[6]), see the article Coastal cities and sea level rise. Measures for dealing with the impacts of climate change in these coastal zones are already urgent today (Wong et al., 2014)[7]. Such measures interfere with other developments and interests in the coastal zone and should therefore be embedded in an ICZM strategy.

Uncertainty and awareness

Countries with low-lying coastal zones will have to face climate change and some impacts are already occurring. However, separating the impacts of climate change from change produced by other natural or human causes is still very difficult. Uncertainty about the impacts of climate change is a serious obstacle to raising public awareness and for getting climate adaptation high on the political agenda, compared to issues with a more immediate impact [8]. Uncertainty about the possible impact of climate change is not the only reason. The fact that the greatest impacts are related to exceptional extreme events and not to everyday experience also plays a role. According to a survey among European policymakers, the occurrence of an extreme weather event is presently the most important trigger for progress in climate adaptation [8].

Risk-based adaptation

The largest climate change impacts in the coastal zone result from extreme events which have a low probability of occurrence within a given time interval. The assessment of risk, defined as the product of probability of occurrence and resulting damage, theoretically provides an objective measure for the need to adapt to these impacts. By evaluating which damage is avoided at which costs, informed choices can be made among different adaptation strategies. Uncertainty in the probability of occurrence and uncertainty in the estimated damage can be incorporated in a risk assessment [9]. If probability distributions can be defined for the various factors influencing occurrence and damage of extreme events, a Monte Carlo method can be used for the risk assessment (Pappenberger et al., 2006 [10]). The application of the risk concept in adaptation strategies is limited, however, by the difficulty to estimate these probability distributions, especially regarding possible damage and loss of life caused by rare extreme events [11].

A further complication arises when a choice has to be made among different possible adaptation measures: which time scales and spatial scales have to be considered ? The choice of these scales strongly influences the outcome of ranking methods (based, for example, on cost-benefit analysis, cost-effectiveness or multi-criteria analysis). This complication is enhanced by the uncertainty about the future in general. How are values of present assets affected by other future global or local changes, in addition to climate change, and how do societal interests evolve? The conjugation of these different sources of uncertainty is sometimes called “deep uncertainty”[12]. Hardest to deal with are the so-called 'unknown unknowns': the things we don't know we don't know (Rumsfeld (2002[13]).


It is very likely that sea level rise will go on for a long time [14]. The same holds for other developments, for example developments related to population growth. Planning for climate change adaptation therefore requires a long-term prospect, taking into account different scenarios for the future. Scenarios provide a way to deal with limitations related to quantifying uncertainty (the probability that a damaging event will occur) and to quantifying possible damage (loss of human lives, loss of assets and loss of other values). Scenarios describe the various futures that can be imagined [15]. These scenarios should be internally consistent, but they are not necessarily expressed in terms of probability and money. Their main function is to open the views of those who are involved in climate adaptation to the broad spectrum of situations and adaptation options that should be considered. Scenarios help avoiding suboptimal sector approaches and a one-sided focus on certain adaptation options, which are in general major shortcomings of current coastal adaptation strategies. However, scenarios do not answer the question which adaptation strategy among different options should be preferred.

Adaptation pathways

Fig. 1. Steps of the Dynamic Adaptation Policy Pathways approach. From Haasnoot et al. (2013[16]).

There is general agreement that adaptation to the impacts of climate change is inevitable and that preparatory actions should already be initiated. But once it becomes clear that a fundamental revision of present coastal policies is needed, the questions arises which actions are most appropriate for coping with the impacts of climate change in the long term. Revised policies have to deal not only with the uncertainty related to the future impacts of climate change, but also with uncertainties related to future social and economic developments. A static plan is inadequate, as the future can unfold differently from what is anticipated. Policy actions typically have an uncertain design life and will fail sooner or later when they reach a so-called 'adaptation tipping point (ATP)'[17]. Actions that are appropriate for the foreseeable future then reveal inadequate and may even hinder actions that may become necessary. Similarly, opportunity tipping points may occur.

One way to deal with this problem of “robust decision making” is the strategy of Dynamic Adaptation Policy Pathways (Haasnoot et al., 2012[18]), see Fig. 1. According to this strategy, adaptation pathways are developed that consist of different sets of successive adaptation actions. Each step of such a pathway should ultimately lead to successful long term adaptation within a particular scenario of climate change and socio-economic development. The analysis of the different pathways enables the selection of short term actions that are suitable (no adverse lock-in effects) within different scenarios. The most promising actions are those with the best performance in terms of societal benefits and costs. The steps of pathway definition and analysis is repeated when new follow-up actions become needed; the lessons of the first actions (according to “learning-by-doing”) as well as the newest knowledge of climate change and socio-economic development serve as input. A refined version of this approach (“strategy of dynamic adaptive policy pathways”) has been used to support the Dutch Delta programme for adaptation to climate change (Haasnoot et al., 2013)[16]. A similar method has been developed by Sayers et al. (2013) [9] and applied to the Thames estuary (McGahey and Sayers, 2008) [19]. For an effective implementation of the adaptive pathways strategy, it is essential that any development project in the coastal zone that has a potential impact on future adaptation is evaluated against this strategy.

Mainstreaming climate adaptation

Mainstreaming climate adaptation means that actors in all policy areas that affect the state of the coastal zone are permanently aware of the consequences of climate change and adjust their policies accordingly. Climate adaptation should become a natural component of relevant current policies, at national level, at regional level and at local level. Policy measures are tested for robustness in relation to climate change and adapted to better anticipate the consequences of climate change.

Climate adaptation is an essential component of Integrated Coastal Zone Management and must be part of the policy cycle for the implementation of ICZM:

Climate adaptation plan => Implementation => Monitoring => Evaluation => Plan revision => Implementation => Monitoring => Evaluation, etc.

following the same lines as discussed in Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM).

Knowledge, monitoring and evaluation

Adaptation efforts benefit from iterative risk management strategies due to the complexity, uncertainties and long-term developments related to climate change [20]. Such an iterative risk management strategy consists of an iterative process of monitoring, research, evaluation, learning and innovation. Addressing knowledge gaps through improved observation and research reduces uncertainty and helps to design effective adaptation and risk management strategies.

Monitoring is essential for a better understanding of climate change impacts in the coastal and marine zone. A coordinated and consistent approach to marine and marine monitoring is essential for a proper analysis of change in the coastal and marine system. This analysis should focus on the establishment of cause-impact relationships, which make it possible to distinguish climate change impacts from natural variability and other impacts. Monitoring data are often not directly fit for policy evaluation; translating data into indicators pertinent to policy making is a further subject of special attention. Various examples are given in the literature, for instance by Breton (2006) [21] and Marti et al. (2007) [22]), see Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) (Table 2: Measurable ICZM indicators proposed by the DEDUCE project). Measurable indicators and quantitative targets are essential to assess progress in climate adaptation, to inform policy and the general public and to develop adaptive capacities of institutions and the wider society.

Climate adaptation measures

See the article Climate adaptation measures for the coastal zone.

Financial instruments

Climate change adaptation will require hundreds of billion dollars of investment each year in the next decades. One of the big challenges of adapting to climate change is that the countries which are most vulnerable to climate change (i.e., least developed countries, small island states) neither have the financial resources nor technical and institutional capacities to adapt to climate change[23].

In many developing countries the impact of climate change is exacerbated by fast urban development in the coastal zone, especially in Asia and Africa (Neumann et al.; 2015[24]). However, financial claims for coastal zone climate adaptation have to compete with other urgent development priorities. Grants and loans from international donor programs are an important resource for many developing countries. Several donor programs provide opportunities for financing coastal zone climate adaptation. An overview of these programs is given in 'A Resource Guide to Climate Finance' (2018)[25] and by Timilsina (2021[23]). A few important international funding programs are specifically mentioned below.

International funding programs

The Adaptation fund

The Adaptation Fund was established to finance concrete adaptation projects and programs in developing countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol and are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Since 2010, the Adaptation Fund has committed US$ 532 million, including supporting 80 concrete adaptation projects with about 5.8 million direct beneficiaries.

The Global Environmental Facility (GEF)

Funds of the Global Environmental Facility are available to developing countries and countries with economies in transition to meet the objectives of the international environmental conventions and agreements. GEF support is provided to government agencies, civil society organizations, private sector companies, research institutions, to implement projects and programs in recipient countries. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was established at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to tackle environmental problems; the World Bank serves as the GEF trustee, administering the GEF Trust Fund. Since 1992, the GEF has provided US$ 17 billion in grants and has mobilized an additional US$ 88 billion in loans for 4000 projects in 170 countries.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF)

The Green Climate Fund is a financial mechanism under the UNFCCC, established at COP16 in 2010, adopted in 2011, and operational since 2015. The Fund is a global platform to respond to climate change by investing in low-emission and climate-resilient development. The GCF was established to limit or reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in developing countries, and to help vulnerable societies adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. In 2018 the committed funding was 4.6 billion US$.

Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDDR)

The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), established in 2006, is a funding mechanism of the World Bank that finances activities to understand, manage, and reduce risks from natural hazards which are being exacerbated due to climate change. Most of the GFDRR resources are provided as grants to countries to support the implementation of the Sendai Framework. By June 2018, the GFDRR has an active portfolio of USD 252 million, financing 394 activities and 136 countries addressing a range of issues including flooding, earthquakes, and landslides.

Emissions Trading System (ETS)

Climate change adaptation measures that contribute to net additional sequestration of greenhouse gases (GHG) can be eligible for co-financing through the GHG emissions trading system. The condition is that carbon credits can be unambiguously allocated according to the UN certification criteria. Opportunities for ETS co-financing of climate adaptation measures are discussed in the article Blue carbon revenues of nature-based coastal protection.

Private sector financing

Governmental policies can create incentives to stimulate involvement of the private sector in financing climate adaptation. Examples of such incentives are:

  • Climate change bonds that secure the expected rate of return for investors in climate adaptation projects
  • Co-financing of projects that contribute to climate adaptation

The private sector may also be willing to finance climate adaptation measures that reduce climate-related risks that threaten the assets in which they have invested.

Economic losses due to natural disasters have substantially increased during the past decades[26][27]. The increase in disaster risks is driven by climate change, in particular for coastal zones, often exacerbated by economic development and population growth. The damage caused by natural disasters places a heavy financial burden on the affected society. Insurance is a way to mutualize losses associated with disaster risk, but insurance premiums are generally high. However, when risk mitigation measures are taken, insurance premiums can be reduced. On the basis of a realistic estimate of the avoided risks, a private insurer and risk owner can agree on a combined package of an investment program in risk-mitigating measures and a corresponding reduction in insurance premiums. Part of the investment costs in the risk reduction plan can be financed in this way. A hypothetical case study on coral reef restoration as a risk mitigation measure shows that significant savings can be made compared to the conventional practice of transferring risk from risk owner to insurer[28].

Related articles

Climate adaptation measures for the coastal zone
Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM)
Coastal cities and sea level rise
Sea level rise
Setback area

Further reading

CoastAdapt website


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The main author of this article is Job Dronkers
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Job Dronkers (2024): Climate adaptation policies for the coastal zone. Available from [accessed on 25-05-2024]