Every silver lining has a cloud: the impacts of climate change in Europe and Central Asia

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 Photo © Rachel Block/World Bank

Reading the newspapers last January when Russia suspended the supply of gas to the rest of Europe—with Eastern European countries hardest hit—I could not help but think that the region might be better off with fewer sub-zero days during winter.

On a trip to the Balkans last year, I partook of the colorful summer bounty of peppers and tomatoes enjoyed throughout southern Russia and Southeastern Europe. 

"Dear Diary: August 27th, 2008. Sarajevo.  Best tomato of my life. If this reckless bus driver careens off the mountainside, at least I’ll die satisfied."

What a contrast from the pickles and cabbage my great-great-grandparents subsisted on in Poland and Lithuania! Though I was raised “properly”—with a taste for pickled cauliflower and herring—I could see why the northern reaches of the region might appreciate a longer growing season and more sunny, tomato-ripening days.

Studying (and contributing to) projections of global food supply in the changing climate over the next century, I see precipitous drops in yields projected in already-poor swaths of Africa, and in densely populated and cultivated regions in South and East Asia.  But many have concluded that, globally, there will be enough food to go around—thanks to the expanding role of Europe and Central Asia as the breadbasket of the world—and assuming free and fair international trade in food.
A recent report by the World Bank, “Adapting to Climate Change in Europe and Central Asia,” argues that these outcomes can by no means be taken for granted.

The drier, hotter southern countries of the Europe and Central Asia region (or ECA, in World Bank parlance)—such as Moldova, Turkey, and Uzbekistan—will likely struggle with scorching heat and insufficient water availability.  On this, most agree.

But many also suggest that fewer nights below freezing, longer summers, and abundant rainfall will cause large areas of ECA, particularly in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine (or “KRU”), to become major grain producers—and exporters—to supply the demand of hungry populations from Lisbon to Lviv, and from Chennai to Shanghai.

This projection rests on a number of assumptions.  1.  Climate has been the limiting factor in preventing KRU countries from becoming the predominant exporters of grain and other agricultural goods.  2.  Thus, removing climate constraints through warmer temperatures will bring about a thaw that unleashes the region’s latent potential.  3.  Global markets for trade in agricultural goods function smoothly—and politics will not interfere with supplies reaching foreign markets.

In fact, current productivity in much of Eastern Europe is far behind that in Western Europe, even controlling for climate conditions.  In other words, climate is not the binding constraint; rather, continued underinvestment in key areas such as technology, extension services, farmer education, and trade facilitation, and mixed progress on land and market institutional reforms, have held ECA’s agriculture back from reaching its full potential.  Without the needed investments and reforms, hoped-for gains in a warmer world for ECA’s farmers—and for stressed global markets—will not become a reality.

And even if Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and other ECA countries do close the productivity gap with Western Europe and make the proactive adaptations needed to prosper in a warmer but also less predictable, more variable and extreme climate, can we trust that ECA’s farmers will reap the gains of their international comparative advantage, and that their produce will reach global markets?

Intra-regional conflict over energy supplies, and the imposition of export bans on major grain and oilseed crops at the onset of the food crisis last year in many ECA countries, cast doubt on the prospects for turning what is now a stream into a reliable river of food exports.

Nor are the agricultural trade policies outside of ECA encouraging, as World Bank economist John Nash has pointed out on this blog.

So if ECA countries wish to enjoy the few gains that the physical impacts of climate change provide, they cannot neglect fundamental investments that would support their economies even in a world without climate change.

And, as the upcoming World Development Report 2010 will argue, if global food demand is to be satisfied, policymakers must focus on both unlocking agricultural trade and better managing land and water at home—in all regions.



Rachel Ilana Block

Research Assistant, World Development Report 2010

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