Tropical losers, northern winners from warming?

OSLO (Reuters) - Northern nations such as Russia or Canada may be celebrating better harvests and less icy winters in coming decades even as rising seas, also caused by global warming, are washing away Pacific island states.

File photo shows a boat sailing near a huge piece of ice, broken off the Upsala glacier, floating in the waters of Lago Argentino, in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, southwest of Argentina in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, March 27, 2007. According to Argentine scientist Jorge Rabassa, the Patagonian glaciers are being affected by climate change and by probably between 2020 and 2030, most of them will be gone. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

A draft U.N. report to be issued in Brussels on April 6 foresees unequal impacts from warming: tropical nations from Africa to the Pacific, mostly poor, are likely to bear the brunt but those nearer the poles, mostly rich, may briefly benefit.

“At least for a few decades there will be a few winners,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the head of U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of 2,500 experts which will release the report outlining regional impacts of warming.

But he said most scenarios foresee an extended rise in temperatures this century, stoked by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. “Clearly there would be no winners left anywhere,” he told Reuters.

Pachauri declined to give details of the report but a draft seen by Reuters projects heatwaves, droughts and floods that could cause more hunger for millions of people, mainly in Asia and Africa, and water shortages for up to 3.2 billion.

It also says, however, that world farms could gain from up to a 3 Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) rise in temperatures because of better crop growth at higher latitudes.

And less cold toward the poles could also mean fewer deaths in winter, lower heating bills and more tourism -- aiding nations from Scandinavia to New Zealand.

Even so, many reject the idea of climate change winners.

“You can have positive effects in some sectors and very negative in others. It’s impossible to say what the bottom line will be,” said Norwegian Environment Minister Helen Bjoernoy.


She said rising temperatures might mean “sweeter apples and cherries” in Scandinavia or less need for snow ploughs in winter to clear the streets. But stocks of cod or herring might move north, damaging fisheries.

And there are ethical issues too.

“With a temperature rise of perhaps 2-3 Celsius (3.6-5.4 Fahrenheit) you would see benefits for the whole temperate zone,” said Richard Tol of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin.

“But if you approach it from an ethical perspective -- that your emissions will affect people in Bangladesh -- then clearly you have to think again,” he said.

In Europe, he reckoned places north of about Bordeaux in France could benefit. Portland, Oregon, in the United States and Vladivostok in Russia are roughly on the same latitude.

Among regional losers, the draft report says Himalayan glaciers could shrink on current trends to 100,000 sq km by 2030 from 500,000 sq km now. Glaciers regulate river levels and link to irrigation for hundreds of millions of people in Asia.

Low-lying small island states, such as Tuvalu in the Pacific or the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, fear they could disappear below the waves as seas rise. Millions of people from China to Florida live in low-lying coastal areas.

“Sea-level rise and increased sea water temperature are projected to accelerate beach erosion, and cause degradation of natural coastal defenses such as mangroves and coral reefs,” the draft says of small island states.

A U.N. report in February said seas could gain by 18 to 59 cm (7.1 to 23.2 inches) by 2100.

And the new draft says that many dry regions -- such as the Mediterranean basin, the Western United States, southern Africa and northeastern Brazil -- “will suffer a decrease of water resources due to climate change”.


Russian President Vladimir Putin once mused in 2002, before deciding to ratify the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol for fighting global warming, that warming might be good for his chill nation.

“You often hear, either as a joke or seriously, that Russia is a northern country and it would not be scary for it to be two or three degrees warmer,” Putin said. “Maybe it would be good and we could spend less on fur coats and other warm things.”

But other experts say rising temperatures could thaw permafrost on which many roads and towns are built -- from northern Canada to Siberia -- and bring forest pests north.

“And in many regions farming cannot simply move north -- Russia and Canada simply lack suitable soils,” Tol said.

Echoing Putin, a report last year by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern said there could be winners.

“In higher latitudes, such as Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, climate change could bring net benefits up to 2 or 3 degrees Centigrade through higher agricultural yields, lower winter mortality, lower heating requirements, and a potential boost to tourism.

“But these regions will also experience the most rapid rates of warming with serious consequences for biodiversity and local livelihoods,” it added.

“It’s a very dangerous avenue to say there are benefits from climate change,” said Anders Portin, senior vice president of the Finnish Forestry Industry Federation. He said that paper producers would “certainly not” be net beneficiaries.

Pine forests might grow better but insects, normally killed in winter, could thrive. Heavy transport machines are already getting bogged down on normally icy forest tracks as spring arrived early, and storms in Scandinavia in recent years toppled record amounts of timber.