North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s largest federal state – and a decisive step ahead of the rest of the republic: Since 2021, a 15-point plan has stipulated how the country should adapt to climate change. The measures are stipulated by law and binding. Accordingly, the consequences of global warming must be taken into account in all planning and decisions. Climate monitoring is intended to predict possible consequences of global warming – and a “Climate Adaptation Advisory Board” evaluates the results.

So far, all of this has been the responsibility of the states and municipalities. In some federal states, such as Schleswig-Holstein or Bavaria, there are timetables or guidelines for this. It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of municipalities have climate change adaptation strategies. However, these are not legally binding. There has also been an adaptation strategy at the federal level since 2008, although there is no binding law. That should change now. A draft has been around for some time; the federal government discussed it for the first time in October. The law is now to be passed by the Bundestag.

Why do we need such a law and what does it say? The most important questions and answers at a glance.

Ending climate change overnight with the help of climate packages and targets is unrealistic because the consequences of global warming often only become noticeable with a delay. Even if the international community meets the climate targets, the consequences of global warming will be felt for a long time. The climate targets are therefore not superfluous, but necessary to prevent greater damage, such as reaching tipping points.

Many countries, especially in the global south, are already severely affected by the consequences of global warming. Germany experienced its climate moment in 2021 with the devastating flood in the Ahr Valley in North Rhine-Westphalia. Since then, it has become clear that we can not only prepare for the consequences of climate change, but also prepare for them. There is currently no legally binding and uniform climate adaptation law for the states nationwide.

The planned law initially sounds very bureaucratic. It forms a strategic framework for climate adaptation at all administrative levels in Germany, according to the draft. Specifically, this means: The government must present a strategy and measurable goals by the end of September 2025 at the latest. The states and municipalities are then also bound to this. According to the draft, however, the traffic light plans to present the measures a year earlier.

The strategy covers various areas and topics, including water balance with coastal and marine protection, buildings and transport, land use (agriculture and forestry), urban development and civil protection, health and economy (industry). Risk analyzes and monitoring are intended to check whether the strategies are sufficient and whether the goals are not being met. Otherwise, the measures must be adjusted.

According to the draft law, the federal government should be responsible for presenting the goals and scientific basis for the measures. Countries must develop and implement strategies themselves. From the end of September 2024, they should report the results every two years to the ministry responsible for climate adaptation.

It probably won’t be cheap: the federal government pays 2.7 million euros annually, plus a one-off payment of 16.3 million euros. However, the financial effort is greater for the states. They pay almost seven million euros every year. The initial one-off payment due is 955 million.

Given the costs that would arise without climate action, this is the lesser evil. Researchers expect that the federal and state costs of climate damage could rise from 280 to 900 billion euros between 2022 and 2050. According to estimates, climate adaptation measures could reduce financial costs by at least 60 percent, and ideally even by 100 percent.

There has been a position paper at EU level for almost ten years, which is regularly updated. This includes advice on how member states can adapt to climate change. However, these are not binding guidelines, but rather appeals to the states. Through the ClimateApt program, the EU also provides scientific data and climate forecasts that heads of government can use to inform themselves. Comparable programs and papers already exist in Germany.

New Zealand is one of the first countries in the world to use a climate change adaptation plan. In the 200-page paper, citizens can find out about the consequences of climate change. In it, the government also stated which measures should be implemented in the coming years to prepare the country for the consequences of climate change. For example, construction projects must be planned in such a way that buildings are only slightly damaged by environmental disasters.

Sources: German Bundestag, Federal Environment Agency,