29 Oct 2019 Story Climate change

The German islet putting wind into the sails of climate action and clean seas

The tiny island of Sylt, a United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site, has been hosting the world windsurfing championship since 1984 along its 40 km, low-lying coast that makes for ideal windsurfing conditions. This year’s event, attended by 200,000 people, attracted 32 competing nations, as well as global media coverage for its messaging on climate action and pollution-free seas.

Sylt is vulnerable to sea-level rise: the increasing severity and frequency of storm surges threaten to engulf villages and wash away beaches as well as the biodiversity of its dunes and tidal flats.

The island is shrinking. Records of annual land loss going back to 1870 show that Sylt lost an annual 0.4 metres (16 inches) of land in the north and 0.7 metres (28 inches) in the south from 1870 to 1951. In recent decades this rate has increased to 0.9 metres (35 inches) and 1.4 metres (55 inches) respectively.

West coast Ellenbogen, Sylt, Germany. Photo by Michael Gäbler, Wikimedia Commons

“Sporting events, especially those that make use of the natural features of our land and sea that risk being lost to climate change have a huge opportunity to raise awareness of the global climate emergency. Sylt is on the frontline of climate change and it is exciting to see it step up to be on the frontline for positive climate action too,” says UN Environment Programme (UNEP) climate change expert Niklas Hagelberg.

The island has a rich biodiversity. Many birds have their hatching grounds on Sylt or use the island as a stopover on worldwide migrations.

Heaths on the eastern side of the island provide habitats for many rare species of plants and animals that have adapted to the windy conditions. About 2,500 animal and 150 plant species have so far been recorded; 45 per cent of the latter are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. Especially notable are the 600 species of butterflies that live in the heaths, and the endangered natterjack toad.

West coast Ellenbogen, Sylt, Germany. Photo by jkb, Wikimedia Commons

A sturdy pink and white rose—the Sylt rose or Rosa rugosa—grows all over the island, on dunes and between the old Viking graves, most of which have long been swallowed by the sea. Along with the rest of Sylt’s unique flora, its roots help to keep the delicate island from washing away.

Other nature-based solutions have been implemented—from planting marram grass to prevent dune erosion, to grazing sheep on the sea dikes and heaths to keep the vegetation short and compress the soil, creating a denser surface, more resilient to wave impact.

This year’s event was the most sustainable yet. Partnering with UNEP’s Clean Seas campaign, event organizers banned plastic bottles and disposable cutlery, dramatically reduced plastic waste. They organized a beach clean-up, ensured all litter was removed from the beach after the event, recycled all advertising material and planted mangroves through sponsorships as natural CO2 compensation. The event was powered exclusively by green electricity.

The event featured a “Stop Ocean Plastic” keynote speech and workshop, as well as “Save the Ocean”, a documentary by media partner ProSieben Sat.1.

UNEP and partners have been campaigning to rid our oceans of plastic debris to protect marine ecosystems. A November 2018 UNEP report titled Legal Limits on Single-Use Plastics and Microplastics: A Global Review of National Laws and Regulations says 127 countries out of 192 have adopted some kind of legislation regulating plastic bags.


About Clean Seas: more than 60 countries have joined UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign to fight marine plastic, and more than 100,000 people worldwide have taken the Clean Seas pledge, promising to reduce their own plastic footprints.

The Santiago Climate Change Conference (COP 25) will take place in Santiago, Chile, from 2 to 13 December. The President-Designate for the conference is Carolina Schmidt Zaldivar, Minister of Environment of Chile. The aim of the conference will be to increase ambition and accelerate action on the global climate emergency and support the rapid implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

For further information, please contact Niklas Hagelberg: [email protected]