A new report commissioned by the British government finds that the current policy framework for addressing the problem of global warming may not be enough to stave off adverse effects that could potentially impact millions. In Southeast Europe, some of the projected trends -- such as more frequent heat waves -- are already being recorded, and experts warn that the region faces possible water shortages, disruptions to agriculture, and strains on the energy infrastructure as temperatures rise. Reconciling environmental foresight with the quest for better living standards could pose a formidable challenge.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia – 06/03/06
A more arid climate and increased susceptibility to drought could be among the regional effects of global warming. [Getty Images]
With new research indicating the impact could be worse than previously thought, scientists are calling for urgent action to address the risks of climate change. If adequate steps are not taken over the next two decades global temperatures may rise by between 1.5°C and 6°C over this century, potentially impacting millions of people, warns a recently released report commissioned by the British government.
The study, titled "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change", collates evidence presented by scientists at a conference hosted by the British Meteorological Office at Exeter, southwest England, in February 2005.
According to the report, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 380 parts per million (ppm), which is already about 100 ppm above the pre-industrial level. The rate of increase, it says, is at least 10 times -- and possibly 100 times -- faster than at any other time during the past 420,000 years.
"It is clear from the work presented that the risks of climate change may well be greater than we thought," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in the foreword to the study, released on 30 January. "It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialisation and economic growth from a world population that has increased sixfold in 200 years, is causing global warming at a rate that is unsustainable."
Global average temperatures have already increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, experts say. Projections indicate they could rise by between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, depending on what efforts are made to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
For countries in Southeast Europe, possible long term effects include a drier climate, continuing decline in rainfall, increased vulnerability to drought and heat waves, and lower agricultural yields.
According to climatologists, the Balkan region faces a potential worsening of trends that have already been observed in recent years. As the climate becomes more arid and rivers dry up, water supplies could become scarce, affecting agriculture and industries that depend on water and leading to greater pollution, an increase in heat-related deaths, and a surge in the demand for electricity during the summer months.
In Greece, the National Observatory of Athens has produced a regional climate model based on projected increases of greenhouse gases over the next century, factoring in world population growth, economic globalisation and availability of advanced technology.
Assuming a 250 per cent increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases by 2100, the model projects that by 2071-2100 the mean maximum temperature in July in the Balkans will have increased by up to 10-11 degrees compared to 1961-1990, while minimum temperatures will have risen 9 degrees.
Furthermore, the model forecasts sharp drops in summer precipitation, with an average of only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of current levels.
"What is disturbing about the Exeter report is that it suggests that what has been a long-term policy framework, maybe even that is something that is going to cause more major difficulties than people imagined," British Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said. [Getty Images]
Energy use is widely considered a major contributor to the problem. Increased greenhouse gases in the region are caused not only by auto emissions and industrial activities, but also by agriculture. Sources include methane associated with stock breeding and rice production, as well as nitrogen and carbon oxides produced by the burning of agricultural refuse.
For the transition countries of Southeast Europe, global warming poses the challenge of reconciling environmental foresight with the quest for better living standards. While emissions have actually declined over the years in, for instance, Bulgaria and Romania, this has in large part been due to lower GDP during the move from a command to a market economy.
In Bulgaria, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 88 per cent between 1988 and 2002, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). In Romania, emissions dropped 47 per cent between 1989 and 2001. With both countries looking forward to EU entry and accelerated economic growth, these relatively low levels could be hard to maintain.
By contrast, emissions in Greece -- an EU member -- have risen steadily over the past decade, with energy production and use, waste disposal and agriculture as the main contributing factors, says the EEA.
Through the accession process, the EU has the potential to influence environmental policies in the Balkan countries aspiring to membership. However, the EU members themselves have not been fully successful in meeting their own criteria. As of 2003, the 15 existing members of the EU had only managed to reduce emissions by a quarter of the EU's target. Since then, the bloc has expanded to include 10 more states.
The EU's position on global warming, adopted in 1996, calls for limiting temperature rises to a global mean increase of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, the Exeter report warns that substantial risks exist even at those levels of warming, particularly for vulnerable ecosystems, species and regions.
If the EU temperature target is to be achieved, greenhouse gas concentrations should be stabilised at 450 ppm at the most around 2015, says the report. In the course of the following 25 years they would need to be substantially reduced by 30 per cent to 40 per cent compared to 1990 levels.
"We're going to be at 400 ppm in 10 years' time, I predict that without any delight in saying it," said Sir David King, the British government's chief scientific adviser. "But no country is going to turn off a power station which is providing much-desired energy for its population to tackle this problem -- we have to accept that. To aim for 450 (ppm) would, I am afraid, seem unfeasible."
British Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said the new study highlighted the "tipping point" beyond which climate change could be expected to become irreversible.
"What is disturbing about the Exeter report is that it suggests that what has been a long-term policy framework, maybe even that is something that is going to cause more major difficulties than people imagined," she told BBC Radio.
Scientists say there are a number of technology options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including energy efficiency improvement and use of low or zero carbon energy sources, such as gas, nuclear, biomass, wind and solar energy, especially for poorer nations.
Other possible technology options include CO2 capture and storage, the potential for which is said to be also significant; enhanced biological sequestration of CO2 in forests and soils by specific management measures; and non-CO2 gases.