International assistance helps Belarus to face challenges and explore new opportunities of the climate change
Is there a chance for Belarus to join the Europe’s list of melon exporters in the near future? Such perspective started to take shape when during unusually hot summer of 2010 a number of agricultural householdings in the southern regions of Belarus managed to grow an impressive harvest of watermelons and melons. The public attention to the issue was boosted in summer 2014 when the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko demonstrated perfect melons and watermelons grown in his garden in the Minsk region and suggested that governors of Belarus’s southern regions turn attention to growing melons and other cucurbits or vine crops for export.
Works begin at Yelnya marsh, to restore hydrological regime
The new weather conditions present Belarusians with new opportunities, as well as brought the issue of climate change high on the current agenda of environmental challenges. Since 1989, the country is witnessing an unparalleled warming, with a sharp increase in winter temperatures and average temperatures between 1989 and 2012 1.1°C higher than the climate norm (5.8°C yearly average). According to researchers, Belarus experienced a shift in agro-climatic zones. As the result the products line of local agricultural sector could be expanded with a variety of southern vegetables and fruit, including melons.
However, warm climate brings new challenges and threats. It is expected that climate change will affect Belarus primarily through an increase in extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, making agriculture, forestry, industry, energy and housing the most vulnerable sectors. Taking into consideration that these sectors provide 40 percent of GDP, there is a need for the country to strengthen its climate change policy to address the gradually increasing complexity of the challenge and enhance the potential positive effect.
Currently Belarus has no overarching adaptation strategy, although a strategy draft plan is under development. Different adaptation mechanisms are scattered across various legal documents, including two key programmes: the National Programme for the Development of Forestry of Belarus for 2011-2015, and the National Programme on Climate Change Mitigation Measures for 2013-2020.
With due account of new concepts and provisions for post-2015 agenda, the country submitted its new climate action plan to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in September 2015. The plan comes in advance of a new universal climate change agreement, which the participating parties aim to reach at the UN climate conference in Paris, in December this year. In case of success, the agreement will come into effect in 2020, empowering all countries to act to prevent average global temperatures rising above 2 degrees Celsius and to reap the many opportunities that arise from a necessary global transformation to clean and sustainable development.
However, adaptation to climate change alone is not enough. The full-scale solution also requires disaster risk and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, increase of energy efficiency and a shift to sustainable renewable energy in industrial and residential sectors.
International development assistance empowers the country with further capacity building in development and implementation of its national low-carbon development strategies consistent with national priorities and emission reduction targets; assists Belarus in the development and implementation of its national strategy and action plans on adaptation, as well as facilitates green investments, minimising financial burden on public funds.
UNDP in Belarus, EU, Global Environment Facility (GEF), GEF Small Grants Programme, the World Bank and a number of other international organisations and NGOs support measures focused on energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable wetlands management, flood protection, green economy approaches in Belarus.
The UN Express Belarus for SDG initiative that trained across Belarus in late October 2015 featured the First Climate Change Hearings that took place on 29 October in the city of Vitebsk. The event, organised by UNDP in Belarus in a partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of the Republic of Belarus and the Vitebsk State University, featured a series of presentations and open discussions from the key UNDP implemented projects that tackle various aspects of climate change.
Energy efficient house in Grodno
Educating future generations about the causes and effects of global climate change is crucial, as implementing adequate solutions depends on a well-informed public. This issue was successfully addressed by the UNDP-ENVSEC ‘Environment and Security’ project that pioneered climate change education in Belarus’ universities. Under the project’s framework a new study course ‘Climate Change: Consequences, Mitigation, Adaptation’ have been developed and tested in practice. The four-unit study course applies innovative educational approaches to help students and young people to understand, address, mitigate, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is expected to affect water resources, population and economy in the Pripyat River and Neman River Basins. Taking into account possible climate change impacts, the project strengthened Belarus’ capacity in managing flood and related disasters in the regions, designed a flood risk map and provided human and institutional capacity strengthening in deploying and enhancing a regional flood early warning system.
The housing sector consumes more than 16 percent of the total final electricity consumption and about 33 percent of total final thermal energy consumption and is responsible for about one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions (one of key contributors to a human induced global warming) in Belarus.
The UNDP-GEF project ‘Improving Energy Efficiency in Residential Buildings in the Republic of Belarus’ is looking at high-tech solutions to turn residential houses from using fossil fuels, facilitate a shift to renewable energy sources during their operational phase. The project also demonstrates how the potential for greenhouse gas emission reductions in buildings can be realised in practice. The initiative promotes a new model of green residential housing featuring energy-efficient construction and appliances, as well as energy-generating technologies, such as solar water heating, solar photovoltaic systems, and heat pumps. The model, suggested by the project, envisages a fourfold reduction of thermal energy consumption that will result in GHG emission reduction of up to 10 thousand tons of CO2 per building in the course of its operational phase.
Belarus’ natural mires are important stores of carbon. Between 1960 and 1980 around 1.5 million ha of peatlands were drained for agriculture, forestry and peat mining. The carbon, which was locked for thousands of years started to leak into the atmosphere with knock-on effect on carbon balance in the atmosphere.
UNDP Belarus, GEF, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, the UK), Belarusian Ministries of Environment and Forestry joined efforts in developing long-term restoration solutions, acknowledging the rewetting as an effective way of tackling greenhouse gases emissions from these landscapes. The rewetting approach involves blocking drainage canals by constructing various water-regulating facilities (dam, dykes, etc.) and, thus, elevating water levels to or above the peat surface.
This approach was successfully applied in practice by the UNDP-GEF project ‘Renaturalisation and Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Belarus to Combat Land Degradation, Ensure Conservation of Globally Valuable Biodiversity, and Mitigate Climate Change’ (Peatlands-1) by restoring hydrological regime of 12 disturbed peatlands on the overall area of 28,000 ha. The rewetting helped to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 300,000 tons per year. The project also developed a regulatory framework that specified the procedure and rules for renaturalisation of degraded peatlands, and designed Belarus’ first practical recommendations on the environmental rehabilitation of degraded peatlands.
The developing strategy of restoring and sustainable use of the country’s peatlands with regard to climate change was taken further as part of the UNDP-GEF project ‘Landscape Approach to Management of Peatlands Aiming at Multiple Ecological Benefits’ (Peatlands-2). The project focused on developing and testing the method of restoring peatlands, damaged by forest amelioration. Works are underway to restore a hydrological regime at Belarus’ three large raised bogs with the overall area of 3,570 ha.
Grazing on peatlands is also seen as a strong driver of their degradation and a source of GHG emissions. The Peatlands-2 project set the challenge in converting 400 ha of degraded peatlands, formerly managed for intensive agriculture, to meadows that will be further used for mowing and pasture. Apart from this, the project propelled planting black alder trees on 200 ha of degraded peatlands as an efficient tool to mitigate climate change. These measures will contribute to reducing the negative impacts on the carbon balance.
A total of 51,000 ha of Belarusian peatlands have been renaturalised by international projects in the last decade, once again turning them into carbon sinks. According to the BirdLife International, in October 2015 Belarus’ efforts in peatlands restoration were recognised by the UNDP Equator Principles as being in the top 8 percent of global environmental achievements.
In the last decade more than 10 international assistance projects, implemented by UNDP in Belarus with $US 20 million of financial support from international donors, helped the country to prepare for the challenges posed by climate change and explore in-depth its potential positive effects. These initiatives also paved a way for successful deployment of best available contemporary technologies, innovative hands-on experience, and the best international practices in the field.
The international cooperation in the country’s climate change policy is gaining momentum, fueled by mutual understanding of the necessity to scale collaborative action in the area. In the very near future, three more ‘climate change’ focused initiatives will join Belarus’ portfolio of UNDP implemented environmental projects. Recently the GEF has announced plans to provide Belarus with $US 8.5 million for the implementation of projects aimed at helping Belarus to achieve the transition to ‘a climate-resilient country/economy?’. Being an active contributor to the climate change policy dialogue in the region, Belarus welcomes new opportunities in designing and implementing new approaches that could be instrumental in exploring shifts in climatic conditions, and essential in delivering efficient climate solutions.
By Victor Mikhailov