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By Roger Highfield on

Sea level rise could cost Europe billions

Science Director, Roger Highfield, discusses a report published today on a detailed regional study that underlines the colossal cost of doing nothing to curb climate change.

Global heating caused by climate change will melt ice sheets on land and some calculations suggest that the seas around Scandinavia, England, the Netherlands, and northern Germany will rise by up to 1½ meters in this century. 

Today, a study by the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, concludes that damage caused by ‘worst case’ sea level rises could cost the EU and UK economies up to 872 billion Euros by the end of the century. 

Iceberg off the coast of Greenland. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

In the modelling study published in the journal Scientific Reports today, doctoral candidate Ignasi Cortés Arbués, postdoctoral researcher Theodoros Chatzivasileiadis and Professor Tatiana Filatova and colleagues modelled the potential economic impacts of sea level rises for 271 European regions by 2100 under a high emissions scenario, assuming that no new coastal protection measures are taken after 2015.  

When it comes to the UK, Dr Cortés Arbués said it would be around the European average, with the worst effects focused on northern Lincolnshire, which is susceptible to damage to transport infrastructure. 

Over an area divided up into more than 170 regions, they estimated potential economic losses and gains compared to a scenario with no sea level rises and 2% annual economic growth across all regions.  

Although sea level rise is a significant threat to the world’s coastal areas, the threat is not the same everywhere. With this in mind, the Delft team also modelled the impact of targeted investment in different economic sectors on regional economies. 

Under a high emissions scenario they found sea level rises could cause 872 billion Euros of combined economic losses across the UK and EU by 2100, compared to a scenario of no sea level rises. Prof Filatova said this was double current estimates by the European Commission, for example. 

They observed regional differences, with the majority of economic losses — ‘devastating’ losses of up to 21% regional gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100 — concentrated in directly affected coastal regions such as Veneto and Emilia-Romagna in Italy and Zachodniopomorskie in Poland.  

Although targeted investment had negligible impacts on the UK and EU economy under a high emissions scenario, it could cut some regional losses. The regions that particularly benefitted from targeted investment were Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire, and Kent in the UK, Bremen, and Weser-Ems in Germany, along with West-Vlaanderen in Belgium.

One other point they made is that, compared with other regions of the planet, Europe is relatively well protected against sea level rise.  

The impacts of rising sea levels are complex. Gravity varies over land and sea due to differences in the subsurface and surroundings – the greater the mass, the greater the gravity.  

As a result, the vast Greenland ice sheet attracts the sea, which consequently becomes higher around Greenland. When the ice sheet melts and flows out to sea as water, this attraction is reduced and even though more water has entered the sea, the sea level around Greenland would fall. 

In Northern Europe, another effect results from long ago, during the ice age, when thick ice sheets weighed down the land. When the weight disappears, the land rises and, even though it has been more than 10,000 years since the ice disappeared, the land is still rising. In some places, such as the Gulf of Bothnia, the land is rising faster than the expected sea level rise. 

Nor do the models include the impact of possible tipping points, when the climate system rapidly settles into a new state, added Prof. Filatova.