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3 August, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Horyn

The New Climate Era

Global warming could have both a negative and a positive impact on Ukraine, depending on whether its economy will be able to adapt to climate change in a timely manner

On the verge of the 20th and 21st centuries, mankind has faced the challenge of global climate change, caused by global warming that kicked off back in the late 19th century. In the past, the Holocene – the geological epoch we have lived in since the last ice age – saw many temperature shifts towards cooling and warming. The reasons causing these changes varied from fluctuations in solar activity and Earth’s orbit to volcanic activity and the greenhouse effect. After all, climate is a complex system that can change, even without external factors affecting it, following its own stable internal cycles.

However, in the view of most researchers, current climate changes are caused by the greenhouse effect. In its turn, the greenhouse effect is the result of excessive man-made CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. In fact, other factors causing global climate change have not gone anywhere: for instance, a higher scale volcanic eruption could trigger yet another cooling period as it often has in the past. Still, the human factor that interferes with natural processes has changed that model significantly. The question remains, as to how much human impact is limited by the framework, referred to as the planetary boundaries by researchers, and how significant the changes will be. Even though the average global temperature has increased by an unprecedented 0.8ºС in the last hundred years, although there was also severe cooling in the past, experts suggest that it could grow by another 1.5-2.0ºС by 2050, heavily affected by the human impact on the climate.

As it adapts to a permanent temperature rise, the climate system responds to the changes with natural disasters. According to researchers, their number has almost doubled over the past two decades compared to earlier periods.

In addition to visible disasters, climate adjustment affects various areas of life, from agriculture and economy to demography, the social system and international relations.  

The climate in Ukraine largely changes in line with the global pace. At this point, Ukraine is not among the countries most vulnerable to the global dynamics of climate change, reports the UN international group of experts. However, a permanent rise in the average annual temperature may result in dramatic transformations in a vast part of Ukraine’s physical and climatic landscape. The Carpathian, Southern and South-Eastern regions of Ukraine will be the most vulnerable. A rise in humidity resulting in flooding is projected for the Carpathian area, while Southern and South-Eastern Ukraine may experience lengthy droughts and desertification of vast territories.

Ukrainian researchers believe that the country’s climate has already become less continental and is growing more similar to a maritime climate in some areas. These transformations have triggered a shift of climate zones that are slowly moving northward and are changing the natural system as they destroy natural ecosystems. The forest-steppe parts of Ukraine are no longer considered to be evenly humidified areas.

All these transformation have been affecting various areas of life in Ukraine for a while now. Their effect is particularly visible in agriculture, which accounts for over 8% of Ukraine’s GDP. Despite optimistic expert projections of better grain crops in the case of mild warming, the expected rapid rise of the average annual temperature will have a disastrous impact on Ukrainian agriculture, if it fails to adapt itself to new climate conditions. Agricultural output will decline, while its share in GDP will drop by several percent in the long term. In addition to insect–pests, the amount of which is boosted by the warming, fertile soil can be damaged by erosion and desertification, as a result of the microclimate becoming more arid.

Currently, Ukrainian agriculture is not responding to climate change properly, as it is choosing the easiest way. To minimize the losses caused by natural disasters, many farms are switching to growing technical plants that are less vulnerable to bad weather. As a result, the area under rapeseed crops being grown instead of wheat and vegetables is increasing significantly, particularly in Crimea and the Odesa, Mykolayiv and Kherson Oblasts. In 2008, Ukraine was the top European country for area planted with rapeseed which, along with sunflower, covered 1/5 of the total area under crops. Experts have already categorized rapeseed as an environmental weapon against Ukraine, exhausting the fields and turning chornozem, the fertile black soil, into the lands that can no longer be farmed.

As a result of the droughts that have become common in Eastern Ukraine in recent years, the growth of vegetables, especially potatoes, beetroots, cucumbers and cabbage has shrunk, thus affecting the population’s food supply. Cabbage, potato, sugar and buckwheat “crises” that have occurred now and then during in past two decades, have been a worrying signal, against the backdrop of the expected increased deterioration in the world food situation. Socio-economic troubles and the vulnerability of the agricultural sector to the world market will make the rural population particularly sensitive to the consequences of climate change.  

Global warming will have a heavy impact on the water supply, primarily drinking water, in the most arid areas. Crimea and some Southern oblasts of Ukraine are already suffering from a shortage of good quality water, and the problem of the increase in the annual temperature will aggravate this. The quality of surface water, especially in shallow rivers, could also worsen, which will lead to the spread of infections.  

In social terms, climate change will disproportionately affect people with a low income, having the heaviest impact on socially vulnerable groups with limited access to energy, water and a good quality food supply, as well as other services, including healthcare.  

Experts add migration and humanitarian problems to the list of socio-political risks of natural transformations. Researchers anticipate that global warming will make part of currently inhabited territories unsuitable for habitation, and provoke greater migration flows to other places, including Ukraine. Meanwhile, internal migration is also possible, with people from Southern and Eastern Ukraine, suffering from a shortage of water and droughts, moving to central and western oblasts. 

This challenge requires a comprehensive response from the government to make adjustments to climate change nationwide and locally, also prevent the worst case scenarios. In November 2010, the National Security and Defense Council drafted a plan of adjustment to climate change for 2011-2013, but it would require multi-billion investments for implementation, which is not provided for in the state budget.

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