AI at the Crossroads of Climate Adaptation: Navigating Legal, Technical, and Ethical Challenges in Municipal Planning


  • Lina Irscheid Albert-Ludwigs-Universit├Ąt Freiburg


Climate adaptation planning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Environmental analysis, Legal requirements, Fundamental rights




The impacts of climate change have become increasingly noticeable in recent years. The extreme weather events of the past years were just symptoms of an ongoing crisis that continues to intensify. Storms, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, and other climate-related consequences can jeopardize constitutionally protected interests such as life, health, and property (European Commission, 2021b). The progress of climate change has reached a point where adaptation measures must be implemented to protect the interests of current and future generations (IPCC, 2022). In this regard, municipalities play a central role, as they have a range of legal instruments at their disposal to plan and implement urban adaptation measures.

However, implementing adaptation measures can be highly resource-intensive, both in terms of time and finances, as well as in terms of building materials. Therefore, these measures should ideally be long-term to be effective in addressing future challenges. Consequently, the planning of adaptation measures must be based on a comprehensive knowledge foundation. To anticipate future impacts, predictions are needed. The existing calculation methods (physical modeling) presently lack the capability for widespread high-resolution predictions (Briegel et al., 2023). In order to diminish computational intensity, researchers are currently investigating the utilization of Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods to approximate predictions derived from physical modeling (Cheong, Sankaran and Bastani, 2022).

The contribution aims to address the interface between technical innovation and climate adaptation planning. It explores the potential of using AI-based predictions for adapting cities to the consequences of climate change and examines the extent to which incorporating AI calculations into procedures and decisions within control instruments is possible. The contribution evaluates three AI systems that are intended to support municipal administrations in planning adaptation measures in the future. This evaluation requires interdisciplinary excursions into adjacent research areas such as physical measurement technology, biometrics and environmental analysis, environmental meteorology and modeling, physical geography, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Decisions of municipal climate adaptation planning are made at the local level and are thus initially subject to national legal requirements. However, the focus of the contribution will be on the proposal of the EU Commission for a law on Artificial Intelligence (AI Act), which will apply directly in the member states after its ratification under Article 288 (2) AEUV. The justification of the AI Act explicitly names climate adaptation planning as a sector where AI systems can bring benefits. The AI Act's justification explicitly mentions fundamental rights from the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFREU) that can typically be restricted in the development and application of AI systems (European Commission, 2021a).

In the contribution, these fundamental rights are introduced and assessed in the context of AI systems for climate adaptation planning. The development of the selected AI systems is used as an opportunity to legally assess the sector-specific risks to Union fundamental rights and the benefits of AI systems in the field of municipal climate adaptation planning. The risk assessment of AI systems for municipal climate adaptation planning can vary significantly on a case-by-case basis, as municipalities are differently affected by climate consequences, requiring individually tailored climate adaptation planning. Nevertheless, based on the abstracted development processes of AI systems, the sector-specific risks of AI systems for municipal climate adaptation planning can be identified.

Against the backdrop of the AI Act and the CFREU, interdisciplinary interfaces are explored, gathering the constitutional balancing material that could be relevant for procedures and decisions within municipal climate adaptation planning. Ethical implications of using AI in climate adaptation law are also critically examined. The contribution thus operates at the interface of digital and ecological transformation, addressing two significant challenges we currently face.