Image by NASA's Aqua, via Wikimedia Commons.  Accessed 16.03.2018

 

A Special Analysis on the challenges and consequences of climate change for medium and long-term regional political stability

The year is 2095 and the Earth is rather gloomy. Following the world leaders’ catastrophic failure to tackle the burning issues of climate change, average temperatures have risen by four degrees Celsius, making large parts of the planet almost completely uninhabitable and exposing billions of humans to unprecedented heat stress. The consequences of extreme heat, rising sea levels, partial melting of permafrost, and crop failures in the regions that once fed millions, have caused massive political and economic crisis in many developing countries, pushing their already fragile economies and government institutions over the edge.

Countries located in the tropical belt, but also in parts of North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Middle East, were worst hit. Many did not have, and could not afford, to build infrastructure that would help them cope with the new environment. The movement of people that resulted from the collapse of governments and states unable to deal with the rapidly changing environment has been so huge that it dwarfed the Syrian refugee crisis of 2014-2017. Many armed conflicts ensued.

This grim scenario is actually the prediction that comes from the world’s most credible authority on climate change – the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which issues regular reports synthesising the latest science. The IPCC’s median business-as-usual projection for warming by 2100 is about four degrees, and many leading climatologists believe the probability of keeping within those projections - and the limits set by the Paris Climate Agreement – is already below 10%.
 
Since 1980, the planet has seen a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing extreme heat. The five warmest summers in Europe have all occurred after 2002. Based on these predictions, by 2080, without substantial reduction in emissions of greenhouse gasses, the entire region of Southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought.

The Balkans are in Trouble
As a geographic and political region, the Balkan peninsula appears to be especially vulnerable - not only to environmental, but also to economic and political challenges posed by changing geopolitical dynamics. It already carries a burden of unresolved and/or frozen ethnic conflicts, rampant corruption, and underdeveloped infrastructure unable to cope with the forthcoming challenges.

Due to its strategic location, the region that includes the former Yugoslavia and some of its southern neighbours has always been a gateway to Europe – either as the crossroads between the great powers, or as a pathway in the grand movements of people. And in a strange case of history, it may find itself playing the same role once again.

Changes are Already Visible

Geographically, the region now regularly experiences temperature swings of more than 55-60C between the summer and winter. The long summer heatwaves that easily surpass 40C are replaced by extreme winter chills when the temperature in the cities can drop to -15/-20C. Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia have all been affected by a dramatic increase in the incidence of freak storms, catastrophic floods, and very long droughts. Due to various infrastructural problems, they are finding it extremely difficult to overcome the immediate consequences of extreme weather.

For example, every year, Croatia loses tens of millions of Euros in forest fires that destroy the vital green belt that protects the Adriatic coast and islands – the golden goose of the country's economy. Long blessed with mild, Mediterranean climate and clean turquoise sea, the country of a thousand islands has been a magnet for tens of millions of mostly European holidaymakers. Their spending makes for almost 20% of the GDP, and the possibility that extreme heat and rising sea levels could affect the booming tourism industry would wreak havoc on the economy.

In 2014, after weeks of torrential rain, Bosnia and Serbia were hit by the worst flooding since records began. The damage from the water was further amplified by dilapidated, outdated, and underdeveloped infrastructure. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the estimated damage in Serbia and Bosnia was about €2 and €1.3 billion, respectively – with agriculture and energy sectors particularly badly affected.

Furthermore, there are serious doubts that, in the future, a combination of uncontrolled floods and long periods of extreme heat may lead to crop failure in Serbia's breadbasket province of Vojvodina, and in Croatia’s Slavonija. Serbia already has substantial issues in the agricultural sector where insufficient investments in technology affect output.

Preparing for the Future
It is estimated that Serbia alone needs to invest at least €15 billion to upgrade its decaying environmental infrastructure. Just like neighbouring Bosnia and Macedonia, it acutely needs new flood defences, irrigation systems, green energy facilities, and waste processing plants.

In the energy sector, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, rely almost exclusively on completely outdated, dirty coal-fired power plants. Extremely hot and dry summers have already driven electricity consumption through the roof, while a series of unexpectedly cold winters forced the governments to spend much more on fuel and maintenance.

Despite the substantial potential for harvesting green power from wind, water and sun, systemic corruption and other forms of political manipulation have so far obstructed more serious investments in clean energy. With the exception of the Bosnian Serb republic in Bosnia, most of the existing hydropower facilities had been built in socialist Yugoslavia. Serbia’s first wind turbine project, co-financed by the IFC and EBRD, has finally kicked off this autumn – after losing more than eight years, and €26 million, on finding an exit from the political and administrative maze.

Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia have a total ban on construction of nuclear power plants – despite the fact that Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Hungary each have active reactors and are planning massive upgrades.

Russia has de-facto control over large parts of the energy sector in the Balkans. In Serbia, it has a near-monopoly on oil and gas production and imports, while in Hungary and Bulgaria it holds a key stake in the distribution of natural gas, while Rosatom controls construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants. Without major upgrades, Serbia will face energy shortages in less than three years. While it appears that the country has firmly decided to stay with lignite, the EU accession process will force it to increase the share of green energy to 20% by 2020. On the other hand, the pro-nuclear camp has recently become more vocal thanks to airtime it gets on Kremlin-controlled Sputnik news.

Waste recycling is almost non-existent in Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia, and substantial investments, as well as legislative adjustments, are needed to create and upgrade this vital infrastructure.


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Next week we will release our report detailing the impact climate change is having on the Balkans, whilst outlining medium to long term scenarios. Although the risks and challenges are varied and many, the report also looks at the opportunities that are emerging – from energy production, agriculture and clean technologies, to waste recycling and advanced ICT systems.

It remains to be seen if the winds of climate change that are already breezing across the region will be able to sweep away the ancient ethnic rivalries and deeply rooted questionable practices of rent-seeking political elite.

With chances of global warming staying below the Paris accord’s goal of two-degrees by 2050 at around 10%, the region is about to face huge political challenges - on top of its already notorious ethnic divisions, there is a high probability that new reasons to harbour bad feelings will emerge. Whether this causes fracture or leads to cooperation is the golden question.