Earth is in for troubling times. According to a recent United Nations report, the world has seen a steep increase in the number of natural disasters over the last 20 years, including the loss of 1.23 million lives and costing around three trillion dollars in economic damages.
The aptly-titled report, Human Cost of Disasters, is not shy in its assertion that climate change has played a large role in this rise, stating that, “While better recording and reporting may partly explain some of the increase in events, much of it is due to a significant rise in the number of climate-related disasters.”
In October of last year, the UN issued a press statement ahead of the report’s release, in which Professor Debarati Guha-Sapir, of Belgium’s Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, highlighted humanity’s failure to adapt to such studies.
“This report covers the first twenty years of this century and does not include biological hazards like COVID-19,” Guha-Sapir explained, “but it clearly highlights the level of human suffering and economic loss that result from failure to adapt to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” She also commented that, should we see a similar increase in natural disaster events in the coming 20-year period, humanity’s outlook would be nothing short of bleak.
Engineering climate-change-proof cities
Those who live in coastal cities are already acutely aware of the fact that flooding is the most imminent manifestation of these changing climate patterns. Smart city initiatives are already being discussed around the world, with urban centers like Boston, New York, and London taking part in a difficult but necessary conversation about how to keep their heads above the waves. Of the more than 7,000 recorded disaster events that occurred in the last 20 years, almost 45 percent of them were flood-related.
This danger appears to represent one of the motivations behind the Danish government’s recent approval of plans to build a massive artificial island off the coast of Copenhagen. On June 4, Danish MPs voted 85 to 12 in favor of a proposal to build an island off the coast of the city to provide enough land to house 35,000 residents. The landmass will be connected to the rest of the city through a combination of a metro line, tunnels, and a ring road.
The 1 square mile (2.6 square km) island, named Lynetteholm, will not only dampen the effects of extreme weather on the port and the rest of the city, it will also include a dam system that will help protect residents from climate-change-induced storm surges and rising sea levels.
The concern for flooding is valid. Denmark is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world, and research predicts an expected rise in sea level somewhere between one to two feet (0.3-0.6 m) within this century.
The island was designed by the firms COWI, Arkitema, and Tredje Natur, and the Copenhagen-based company By & Havn (City & Port) will oversee its construction. By & Havn’s role in the project is of particular interest. The entity is a collection of publicly-owned companies that have helped revitalize the city in the last few decades, under the banner of what’s been called the Copenhagen Model, a process of revitalizing the port city’s industrial areas into profitable real estate. These areas are most often turned into luxury housing developments or office spaces for creative industries.
Building new land in Copenhagen is a practice that has proven effective in the past. Completed in 2014, the nearly 985,000 square feet (300,000 square meters) district of Enghave Brygge was built on land that previously didn’t exist in the city’s South Harbor.
Economically, projects like these have done wonders for the city. They have also helped alleviate some of the pressures of a woeful housing market situation in Copenhagen, where demand far exceeds what’s available.
Lynetteholm is Enghave Brygge on steroids, the construction of which would require over 80 million tons of soil to be transported through the city center to form the base of its construction, sourced from nearby construction projects. The island’s foundations could be established by around 2035, while construction is estimated to extend to 2070.
The coast is(n’t) clear
From a distance, the project looks something like an environmentalist’s dream—a government taking the issue of climate change seriously and turning genuine concern into actionable planning that doubles as an electric jolt to the city’s economy.
Its supporters may be getting ahead of themselves, though, as some believe the island to be an example of “greenwashing,” a project ostensibly lauded for its eco-friendly benefits that will actually cause more environmental harm than good.
“We need to consider the climate and the environment, and that has not been done here.”
The first thing to consider is the sheer amount of material involved in building the island, which would require large construction vehicles to make hundreds of daily trips through the city center to transport material. Locals are less than thrilled by the prospect of living alongside the noise and pollution that would result from years of such logistical transfers.
On the day of the vote, protestors gathered outside the Danish parliamentary building to express their concern with the large-scale infrastructure endeavor, reflecting the worries of multiple environmental groups. Even some governmental authorities of neighboring countries that disapprove of the plan.
Groups like Coalition Clean Baltic, a non-profit organization composed of over 20 environmentally-conscious entities across northern Europe, point to far more serious problems than just the nuisance of living alongside construction transport lines for decades on end.
In June, the group issued a statement claiming that the potential harm of the project far outweighs its merits. The island, they say, will seriously disrupt deep saltwater inflow channels coming in from the North Sea, a critical source of oxygen-rich waters that an already fragile Baltic Sea ecosystem sorely relies on.
Other figures, like Frederik Roland Sandby, Secretary-General of Climate Movement in Denmark, worry that key environmental assessments have been overlooked. Speaking with EuroNews, Sandby explained that, “The climate and the environment are being very much forgotten about in the construction and the assessment plans that are being produced for it,” adding that, “We need to consider the climate and the environment, and that has not been done here.”
“The Øresund is a narrow sound with a very fine environmental balance in its waters, and we need to keep it healthy.”
The group is filing a joint legal complaint with the European Court of Justice on the grounds that the city’s environmental assessments only account for the construction of the island and not the housing developments and transport systems that will be built and operated on it. Whether or not the case will delay the island’s construction remains to be seen.
Environmental advocacy groups are not the only ones who take issue with the project. Swedish officials have also voiced their opposition to the island, citing similar environmental worries as CCB, according to Bloomberg. Officials in the Swedish county of Skane, located across from Copenhagen on the Øresund Sound, have criticized the project for its potential to contaminate and reduce water flows into the strait.
“The Øresund is a narrow sound with a very fine environmental balance in its waters, and we need to keep it healthy,” explained Kristian Wennberg, the head of Skane County’s water services.
Supporters of the project claim they have done everything to ensure the island’s impacts have been rigorously and appropriately assessed. Thomas Jensen, one of the main political drivers of the bill, stated in a debate before the parliamentary vote on June 4, “Of the bills I have helped to implement here in the parliament, this is the one which has been most thoroughly discussed, with expert consultations, technical reviews, and almost 200 questions to the Ministry of Transport,” according to Denmark’s The Local.
By & Havn CEO Anne Skovbro is similarly confident that the process leading up to the bill’s approval was done in a fair and transparent way, reportedly stating that, “The project has been environmentally assessed and qualified in consultation with the country’s leading experts and in dialogue with Copenhageners and therefore [parliament] has today been able to adopt Lynetteholm on a well-documented and informed basis.”
The lesson of two evils
The back and forth between those who oppose and support the island project is filled with enough credible figures to indicate that at least some environmental concern for such ambitious projects is warranted. However, Lynetteholm may represent a kind of inflection point in how the world chooses to deal with climate change on a large scale.
Rising sea levels are already forcing cities around the globe (and in some cases, entire countries) to completely re-evaluate their economies. In the case of the Marshall Islands, a country in Micronesia consisting of over 1,200 islands, this issue is quite literally knocking down residents’ front doors. As temperatures around the globe rise steadily, atoll nations like the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, and Kiribati will either need to build upwards or cease to exist.
In 2018, National Geographic reported on a climate change conference held in the Marshall Islands’ capital city of Majuro in which climate scientist Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawaii floated the idea of dredging a nearby lagoon and using the soil to build up at least one island enough to secure it against the rising seas.
In his comments on the subject, Fletcher presented what may be the most balanced perspective on the country’s unenviable position, one that some residents of countries like Denmark have no doubt already considered:
“Dredging and reclaiming land, there’s nothing new about that. There’s not some magic technology. It’s just really expensive […] The other element is that it’s environmentally damaging, [but] I would rather destroy some reef than see an entire culture go extinct.”
As the effects of climate change begin to mount around the world, maintaining peak environmental integrity may be an option already lost to us. How we choose to navigate these compromises will likely determine much of what the future looks like.