Russia's top cities wake up to need for climate change adaptation

by Angelina Davydova | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 15 July 2014 08:30 GMT

Floods hit south Siberia's Altai region in June 2014. Photo/Yury Safonov

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Moscow and St Petersburg start work on plans to protect against climate hazards - not before time, experts say

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, have started working out how they should adapt to the impacts of climate change, including warmer temperatures, floods and rising sea levels.

And it’s not before time, experts say, as scientific data suggests climatic changes in the world’s northern and Arctic regions are occurring more rapidly than elsewhere.

“In Russia, global warming is happening even quicker than average on Earth - in some parts of the country, especially in Siberia and in the Arctic, up to two times faster,” said Vladimir Katsov, director of the Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory in St Petersburg.

In 2013, mean annual rainfall increased by 13 percent from the previous year, and in Russia’s Far East by as much as 20 percent. This region was badly hit by floods last autumn, with economic costs amounting to $1.4 billion.

Climate change is expected to bring more extreme weather and climate-linked disasters, while having major impacts on food security, forestry and other ecosystem services. Worse still, the melting of the Arctic and permafrost could have a multiplier effect, causing even more greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere.

FLOODS AND FIRES

In early June, natural disasters swept across eastern Russia, from floods in the Altai Region of south Siberia to forest fires in neighbouring regions of Eastern Siberia and the Far East.

In the summer of 2010, forest fires and the worst heat wave in Central Russia for 130 years caused heavy smog in Russia’s capital, Moscow, resulting in around 11,000 excess deaths.

The forest fires and droughts of 2010 and 2012 also brought big economic losses. According to Yury Safonov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, 34 percent and 24 percent of grain harvests were lost in each respective year, causing financial losses of around $10 billion.

As a result, Russia banned grain exports in 2010, which caused domestic prices to spike 18 percent in the second half of the year. International grain prices soared by even more in some parts of the world, causing food price instability and highlighting the fragility of global food security.

In the European part of Russia, where two thirds of the country’s population lives, this past winter was significantly warmer than usual, with frosts and snow on the ground for just two weeks in late January. According to Alexey Kokorin, head of the climate and energy programme at WWF Russia, the average temperature for January-March 2014 in Moscow was 3.5 degrees Celsius higher than the norm.

An annual state report on the climate in 2013 noted that the national temperature was 1.5 degrees higher than in 2012, while temperature fluctuations reached 20 degrees - much wider than the global average.

SLOW TO ADAPT

These trends are now being scrutinised with more attention in Russia. Many scientists and experts are talking about the need for adaptation plans for different regions and economic sectors.

“The most dangerous and costly effects of climatic changes in Russia are connected with floods, the melting and disappearance of ice caps, longer periods of droughts, heat waves, rising sea level and flooding of coastal areas, as well as with the spread of new diseases and infection-carrying insects into new regions,” said Safonov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. 

Back in 2011, Russia’s Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, together with a group of economists, calculated that possible economic damages from climate change could rise to up to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) per year by 2030, and in some parts of the country to 5 percent of GDP.

“Russia’s economy is not ready for such risks, lacking adequate adaptation plans,” said Safonov.  “We’re seeing more last-minute action to tackle the actual emergency than a worked-out programme.”

Nonetheless, in the last few months, there have been some advances towards local adaptation plans in Moscow and St Petersburg.

CITIES RESPOND

Moscow is trying to work out both a climate adaptation and mitigation strategy. It is willing to curb growing emissions from its transport sector, and wants to secure the city from further possible damage like that caused by the 2010 forest fires.

A few wetland-restoration programmes have been launched in areas around Moscow. In the 1980s and 1990s, many wetlands were destroyed, mainly to free up land for construction purposes, agriculture, forestry and peat extraction.

Sustainable management of peatlands is also on the agenda, as peat fires proved most difficult to put out in 2010. A project run by Wetlands International, the Michael Succow Foundation and the Forestry Institute of the Russian Academy of Science aims to restore peatlands, to prevent future fires and sequester greenhouse gases, through rewetting and rehabilitating degraded peatlands.

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, rising seas and a growing number of floods pose the biggest threats to the city’s infrastructure, which lies barely above sea level.

Artyom Pavlovsky of the State Research and Design Center, which works on the St Petersburg Master Plan, the city’s ongoing development scheme, noted that surface temperatures in the city are rising faster than in the nearby cities of Helsinki in Finland and Tallinn in Estonia, partly due to the “urban heat island” effect caused by accumulated artificial heat created by emissions from transport, industry, housing and public utilities.

The average annual surface temperature in St Petersburg, now around 6 degrees Celsius, is expected to rise to 9 to 10 degrees by the end of the century. Rainfall is also set to increase from 648 mm to 766 mm per year, while the sea level in the Gulf of Finland is predicted to rise between 40 cm and 90 cm by 2100. 

ST PETERSBURG PLAN

One of the most obvious and dangerous effects of these changes is worsening floods. Between 1979 and 2008, 63 floods were registered - with 13 of them being particularly dangerous – compared with 36 in the previous 30-year period.  Scientists say the peak of seasonal flooding is also shifting from autumn to winter. 

In 2001, a flood protection barrier was put into operation, and it has since been closed five times. The dam took more than 30 years to complete, due to funding problems after the fall of the Soviet Union. The huge project also raised environmental concerns about potential negative effects on the ecosystems of the Gulf of Finland and adjacent coastal zones, although debate over this continues.  

The shores of the Gulf of Finland are set to recede by 0.25 to 0.5 metres per year due to climate change impacts, scientists claim.

Worried by all these risks, in December the city government announced plans to draft a St Petersburg Climate Strategy. It will deal mainly with adaptation issues affecting the urban landscape, infrastructure and economic sectors, said Yulia Menshova of the City Environmental Committee, who is working on the document. 

The strategy will evaluate climate change effects for the city economy and municipal facilities, calculate possible damages, and propose concrete adaptation measures, starting with housing, transport, water supplies, drainage and sewage systems, Menshova added.

These, together with Moscow’s plans, suggest Russia’s authorities may be waking up - albeit belatedly - to the increasingly urgent need for adaptation to the consequences of climate change.

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

Angelina Davydova is a Russian environmental journalist based in St. Petersburg.

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