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Petteri Taalas: Is climate change good or bad for Finland?

Climate change has, in a matter of two years, changed from something only specialist atmosphere experts would be concerned about, into a topic on the daily agenda for politicians and economists. The reality of climate change and the anticipated social and economic repercussions have now been acknowledged like they never were before.

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Climate change has, in a matter of two years, changed from something only specialist atmosphere experts would be concerned about, into a topic on the daily agenda for politicians and economists. The reality of climate change and the anticipated social and economic repercussions have now been acknowledged like they never were before.

Climate change has been promoted as a major political theme thanks to the likes of Ban-Ki Moon, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Angela Merkel. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize due to their work on the issue. 

The financial losses caused by weather phenomena are rapidly increasing  

The financial losses following natural catastrophes caused by weather were ten-fold during the past decade as a result of climate change, the vulnerability of communities to weather variation, and the habitation of areas that are not favourable in light of the weather conditions. Absolute losses have been highest in affluent countries, but in relation to GDP, the greatest damage was suffered in developing countries. The World Bank has estimated that some 13 per cent of the GDP of developing countries is lost because of weather-related natural disasters. In comparison, three quarters of the US economy is susceptible to weather risks.    

Climate change is a clear economic risk  

In October 2006, a former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Nicolas Stern, published The Stern Review, a report on the economic repercussions of climate change, in which he gave real examples and possible scenarios detailing the economic impact of climate change. A 2007 report by IPCC discusses similar issues. According to these reports, it would be much cheaper for the world economy to prevent climate change than to remedy its adverse effects. For example, it has been estimated that lowering GHG emissions to the level at which global warming is limited to 2 to 3 degrees would cost only 0.13% of the world GDP annually until 2030. If emissions were not restricted, the price is estimated to be several multiples of this figure. Stern talks about the threat of market failure caused by climate change. Many international corporations, such as the major oil companies, are aware of theses risks, and have changed tactics, promoting the prevention of climate change.    

Changes in Finland  

Climate model calculations have allowed scientists to estimate the average weather changes to be expected in Finland due to climate change. In Northern regions, such as Finland, changes in climate are approximately twice as strong as elsewhere in the world, owing to the contraction of the polar snow and ice cover, and the after effects of this in heating created by radiation.  

By 2080 Finland is expected to experience a temperature increase of 2 to 7 degrees and a 10–40% increase in the average annual rainfall. The range in estimates depends on different emission scenarios. If emissions were strongly restricted, changes would show the lower figures, but if current practice in atmospheric pollution control continued unabated, it would result in the higher numbers. Changes are expected to be greater than the annual average during winter, and less in the summer.  

Many economic losses are due to extreme weather phenomena. Currently there is no method to sufficiently predict changes in their frequency, since there is not enough supercomputer capacity to make such calculations. The Finnish Meteorological Institute participates in the climate prediction studies in collaboration with the German Max Planck Institute. The focus of the research includes possible extreme climate events.   In addition, climate change is linked with various risks, such as the release of methane previously trapped in permafrost bogs. This could aggravate and worsen changes in the climate, and cause as yet unforeseen social consequences.    

Direct and indirect effects in Finland  

A minor change in climate could, in the limited Finnish context, even be favourable. The following changes are expected to affect Finland directly:  

  • The agricultural growing season will lengthen, and the cultivation of new species will become possible.  
  • The growth of forests should accelerate, and deciduous trees will grow in more favourable conditions. Pests damaging forests are, however, expected to spread further north and timber felling conditions will become more hazardous.  
  • The increase in annual rainfall will benefit water-power production.  
  • There will be less need for heating energy.  
  • The melting of polar ice is likely to open a shorter sea route between Europe and Asia at least for part of the year.  
  • The tourist industry, natural environment, and wildlife may suffer. Southern Finland is likely to have a climate similar to present-day Northern Germany and Lapland will acquire that of Southern Finland in the course of this decade.  
  • Civil engineering and construction projects will need to take into account an increasing weight and volume of water. Lack of snow may lead to problems during the frost season, as ground frost may go deeper than it does now.  

However, a small country such as Finland, which is largely dependent on exports, is very susceptible to global problems. The risks involved in relation to climate change are enormous:  

  • The depletion of drinking and irrigation water reserves in large parts of the world will create serious problems in agriculture, the availability of food and may even lead to war. The most likely sufferers are the countries around the Mediterranean, Continental Europe, India, China, Australia, southern parts of Africa, Brazil, the USA, and Mexico.  
  • IPCC estimates that there could be as many as 750 million potential climate refugees.  
  • Drought and heat spells will exacerbate forest and other wild fires.  
  • Even relatively small changes in the average temperatures may result in serious problems. For example, in summer 2003, the summer in continental Europe was 2.3 degrees warmer than normal, which led to the premature death of 37,000 people and a loss of crops worth more than one billion euros. By 2040, such summers are expected to have become the norm, and by 2060, they would be cooler than normal.  
  • The frequency of strong tropical storms is expected rise.   Floods and rising sea levels will threaten many metropolises and inhabited regions.  
  • According to IPCC, as many as one third of the world’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction this century because of climate change.  

It is highly likely that the global repercussions of climate change will exceed the favourable effects that Finland might experience. This is, however, is a matter that has not been sufficiently studied as yet. There are no reliable prediction data currently available on extreme weather events and their effects in Finland.    

Can anyone benefit from climate change?  

Globally, we are entering an era during which the availability of fossil fuels are becoming depleted, and oil may even run out. On the other hand, it is likely that GHG emissions will also be strongly restricted outside the EU. The demand for energy-saving technology, new forms of energy production, and solutions that help reduce emissions is on the increase. Good examples of success stories are, for example, the wind power industry using Denmark and Sweden’s geothermal technology. In both cases, success has been supported by public investment.  

Finland has fared exceptionally well with new technologies in the past few decades. The strengths of Finland include solid know-how in the engineering sciences and a rapid and flexible response to new challenges. It is completely possible that climate change could bring about several new Finnish success stories by the likes of Kone, Vaisala and Nokia. This would promote global good, while bringing economic benefits to Finland.  

Petteri Taalas
World Meteorological Organization / Finnish Meteorological Institute

Topic

Climate change

Human activity contributes to climate change, and the consequences are serious. Curbing global warming requires a drastic reduction in emissions – right now.

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