The climate changes and so must we

October 29, 2019

Ostrovica natural monument, Marko Risović

I arrived in Serbia six months ago, having lived in other countries and regions that are reeling from the impacts of climate change. In the Middle East, I saw how desertification and increasing water shortages were contributing to tensions and conflict. Later, in Indonesia, I witnessed how the cutting of rainforests and draining of peatland for agriculture was destroying the world’s ability to absorb CO2. Most recently in India, I saw the human toll and costs to the economy of increasingly frequent extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones. But it would be wrong to think that climate change is something that happens far away from Europe and that we are somehow protected from its worst impacts here in the Balkan region. Climate change doesn’t know borders - no matter where we are on this planet, we are affected.

Earth’s climate is changing rapidly and profoundly. The intensity of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, forest fires, floods and droughts, has increased in the past 50 years.  While they occurred before, on average once per decade, nowadays they happen much more frequently, every year or even more than once a year.

With the current average global temperature increase of approximately 1°c above the pre-industrial levels, it has become evident that we cannot reverse global warming during our lifetime. The battle we can still win is to keep the temperature at below 2°c and as close as possible to 1.5°c warmer than before the pre-industrial levels. These are the boundaries of what humans, as a species, can adapt to.

Climate change and the resulting environmental degradation are causing people to move. In 2018 alone, 17.2 million people were displaced due to climate induced disasters in 148 countries and territories worldwide.

We are already seeing the effects of climate change on food production and people’s health in Serbia. Drought has led to decline in crop yields and rise in prices. Heatwaves contributed to an increase in mortality rates. The 2014 floods led to soil contamination with hazardous substances and sewage.

If some of the worst scenarios come true, countries in the Western Balkan region can expect a warming of up to 3°c by mid-century, in combination with increased precipitation, frequency and duration of heatwaves and droughts. If we continue business as usual, extreme weather events will cause crop failures and food shortages, increased energy consumption and decreased water supply in summer, and the spread of new diseases.

The poorest, such as rural low-income communities, have the least capacities to adapt, which could accelerate further depopulation from rural areas. We often think of climate change as effecting rural areas particularly hard. But urban areas will be at risk too, for example, construction in flood-prone areas, without consideration of extreme weather events.

We all got a wake-up call during the UN Climate Summit in New York last month, convened by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres. It boosted climate action momentum – because the countries, cities and private sector responded to his call with concrete plans. As many as 65 countries and major sub-national economies committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to net zero by 2050. While 130 banks – one-third of the global banking sector - signed up to align their businesses with the Paris Agreement goals. Youth also took front and centre stage, sending the clear message that we are responsible for taking action. It is up to us to make the much-needed changes in the way our economies work and the way we behave. And the time to act is now.

Is Serbia and the region waking up?

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and global movement on Climate Action, the Balkan region appears not to recognise the urgency of the need to act.

According to a recent survey conducted for UNDP, most people in Serbia are aware that climate change is happening in their surroundings and 67% think that it is caused by human action. But only one third is doing something about it, like trying to save energy or buying energy efficient appliances.

People feel the impact of droughts and floods, as well as thunderstorms and extreme cold weather. Sometimes through power and water shortages, sometimes through damages in agriculture and assets. UNDP will soon publish the results of the survey, which will show the level of awareness of both the problem of climate change, and what each of us is doing to help combat it.

We know we need to work on two fronts – to mitigate the effects by cutting GHG emissions, and to adapt to changed climate and environmental conditions.

While Serbia’s contribution of 0.1-0.2% to global GHG emissions is extremely small, other smaller countries have similar emissions. In aggregate, this represents a large chunk for the world. Therefore, both large GHG emitters and small ones need to find the optimum solution for all, and steer clear of partial solutions which benefit only some.

The energy sector is the biggest emitter (80%) of GHG emissions in Serbia. Therefore, timely investments in shifting to renewables and increasing energy efficiency will significantly reduce emissions and alleviate the burden of transition from the citizens. However, if no immediate action is taken, society may pay the final price through deteriorating health and shortened lives due to air pollution from burning coal.

While the Government of Serbia is taking positive steps:  development of nationally determined contributions and preparation of climate change strategy and national adaptation plan, far more ambitious plans and accelerated actions are needed on mitigation and adaptation – in Serbia, as in all other similar countries.

In the recent message to Serbia, the EU Delegation and UNDP encouraged the Republic of Serbia to:

a) enhance its climate change mitigation ambition;

b) support and facilitate the clean energy transition and increase energy efficiency;

c) use innovative technologies to drive the shift towards carbon net-zero society;

d) encourage the transformation of Serbian economy towards greater circularity;

e) increase the percentage of its territory under protection;

f) further improve the resilience of local communities to climate change and disaster consequences;

g) support youth in raising peoples’ awareness on climate change; and

h) encourage growth and investments which calculate the environment and biodiversity loss and climate change expenses on the Government’s balance sheet.

There are many things that can be done to adapt to climate change. For example, effective water management in line with EU standards, can help avoid water stress. Energy conservation saves not only GHGs, but also reduces electricity bills for public and private consumers. Growing more resistant crops and developing water-agriculture-pest control early warning and monitoring systems can strengthen the way agriculture adapts to climate change in Serbia.

There are upfront financial investments needed now to strengthen climate resilience, which will only increase with inaction. For instance, another UNDP study soon to be published reveals that climate adaptation does not necessarily cost jobs. Jobs lost in some sectors (e.g. coal extraction) can be compensated in other sectors (e.g. forestry). Also,we calculate that the total financial cost of losses and damage incurred due to extreme weather events since the year 2000 would be sufficient to complete almost all work required on water supply and wastewater treatment systems to align them with the EU norms.

Actions underway now

To increase the share of energy from renewables in the Serbian energy mix, UNDP and Global Environment Facility (GEF) provided seed funds for the construction of six biogas combined heat and power plants using agricultural waste, set up an online biomass e-trading platform and ensured that further investments in biomass facilities carry less risk for private sector investors.

Increasing energy efficiency of public buildings and helping local communities find innovative solutions to reduce GHG emissions is another example of how UNDP and GEF are helping cities as municipalities in Serbia to become climate resilient. Five teams were awarded $500,000, triggering climate mitigation investments of $11 million, for initiatives that will cut about 500,000 tons of CO2, equivalent to planting trees on 145 football fields. 

Food waste that rots in landfills is another green house gas emitter, comprising 8% of global emissions. If food waste were a country, it would rank third, after China and the United States of America, in terms of the volume of emissions created. UNDP announced a partnership last week with Delhaize, the largest retail food chain in Serbia, to distribute surplus food that meets nutrition and safety criteria, to the hungry and needy thereby also reducing these emissions and promoting a more circular economy.

Youth in Serbia show a much better understanding and concern for climate change than older generations. There are some encouraging examples that the youth is Serbia is waking up and joining the global climate action campaign: Trash Heroes are organizing impromptu cleaning actions in urban areas, Guerrilla Gardeners are planting greenery on deserted urban spaces, Green Youth is a civil society organisation that raises peer awareness, while others are calling for no-waste lifestyles.

The downwards spiral of challenges brought by the changing climate accelerates with each year lost due to inaction. The countries of the region need to take concerted efforts now to be able to cope with the effects of climate change. We know that climate change impacts our livelihoods, health and the environment, with the poorest women and men most at risk. As the UNSG Antonio Guterres noted - climate change is the defining issue of our time. What we do today, the actions we take now, if we take them - will have a lasting impact on our future and the future of the generations to come.