IPCC issues wake up call on climate and global food supply

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The IPCC’s latest special report on climate change paints a stark future for the world’s agricultural sector.

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The latest special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a stark future for the world’s agricultural sector, and warns that without serious action on global emissions, and changing farming practices, the world food supply is under threat.

The report cites the impacts of global warming, including increasing temperatures, more frequent drought and extreme weather events and says they will continue to place ever increasing pressures on a global food supply system already operating beyond sustainable limits. It flags also the need of a change in diet.

The Climate Change and Land report delivers a blunt message, particularly for those within Australia’s coalition government representing rural electorates who are intent on advocating that the best thing for regional communities is to push for new coal power stations and new coal mines rather than acting on climate change.

The IPCC makes its message exceedingly clear; things must change and governments must act.

The message to Australians is also clear; we must prepare for climate change and accept that our emissions-intensive, meat heavy diets, will need to change.

The IPCC report is a wake up call to Governments, that climate change poses a substantial threat to global food supplies, and a failure to act could lead to a dramatic escalation of costs and the threats of global conflict.

“Climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions,” the report says.

“Climate change creates additional stresses on land, exacerbating existing risks to livelihoods, biodiversity, human and ecosystem health, infrastructure, and food systems. Increasing impacts on land are projected under all future GHG emission scenarios. Some regions will face higher risks, while some regions will face risks previously not anticipated.”

Unfortunately, the coalition government doesn’t exactly have a great track record of embracing the findings and recommendations of the international climate change body, and outright rejected the expert body’s findings that governments need to be proactive in accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels.

The report authors found that the impacts of climate change are already impacting on Australian agricultural production, through decline in rain fall and increasing temperatures over the last few decades.

“In Australia, declines in rainfall and rising daily maximum temperatures based on 28 simulations of 50 sites caused water-limited yield potential to decline by 27% from 1990 to 2015,” the report said.

The latest report is the culmination of work from 103 contributing experts, who served as lead or review authors of the report, drawn from 52 different countries, including four Australian based authors, and provides a comprehensive assessment of the future of the agriculture in a global economy dealing with climate change.

The report concludes that unless Governments take action to improve the sustainability of agricultural practises, as well as taking effective action on climate change, then the impacts of global warming will continue to degrade the quality and quantity of the world’s agricultural production. Changes to diets, particularly a shift towards foods with a lower carbon footprint, may be required to reduce global emissions.

The clear implication is that diets will need to include less red meats, and the IPCC single out Australia for its overconsumption of food estimating that around a third of food related emissions are due to overconsumption.

“Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health,” the report says.

The report has provided further details into the threat that climate change poses to agricultural production, and how this may act as a ‘threat-multiplier’ exacerbating the risks and severity of global conflict.

“Delaying climate mitigation and adaptation responses across sectors would lead to increasingly negative impacts on land and reduce the prospect of sustainable development,” the report said.

“Pathways with higher demand for food, feed, and water, more resource-intensive consumption and production, and more limited technological improvements in agriculture yields result in higher risks from water scarcity in drylands, land degradation, and food insecurity.”

The report highlights two key issues; that agricultural practises are already unsustainable; exploiting water resources and causing the degradation of lands at a rate than cannot be sustained in the long term, and that this will have flow on effects for the rest of society that will struggle to maintain both human health and the health of the wider environment.

“Climate change is rapidly ramping up existing threats to the land, reducing its ability to feed and support populations around the world and impacting on ecosystems,” the ANU’s professor Mark Howden, who is a vice-chair of the IPCC, said.

“At the same time, the land sector is currently contributing to climate change, even as it potentially offers some of the solutions to reducing greenhouse gases.”

The report found that agriculture has been responsible for around a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last 10 years, with these emissions being split evenly between the impacts of deforestation and the release of methane from livestock production.

Authors have highlighted how the agricultural sector is both at risk of the impacts of climate change, but also can play a significant role in reducing emissions and making agriculture more sustainable.

“Most of the response options assessed contribute positively to sustainable development and other societal goals. Many response options can be applied without competing for land and have the potential to provide multiple co-benefits.”

This was a view echoed by Annette Cowie who serves as the principal research scientist within the climate branch of the NSW Department of Primary Industries and was an author on the report.

“Land is a critical resource, central to feeding the world, tackling climate change, ensuring human well-being and protecting nature. But the land is under pressure, and climate change is increasing that pressure,” Cowie said.

The report further underlines the need for Governments to be proactive in setting policies to both address the causes of climate change, and to support the agricultural sector to invest in new methods and practises that will allow it to adapt to the impacts of global warming.

“The IPCC’s latest report highlights yet again that climate change is not some distant future threat – it’s relevant to all of us now and it is in our own interests to address it urgently,” Howden added.

Farmers for Climate Action CEO Verity Morgan-Schmidt said the report now places pressure on the Federal government to develop a climate action plan for the Australian agricultural sector.

“The Federal Government must adopt and fund a national strategy for climate change and Australian agriculture that brings government, industry, and researchers together to better understand climate risks to Agriculture, and develops solutions to manage these risks,” Morgan-Schmidt said.

“The new report cites three main findings. The first, land is under growing human pressure. Second, land is part of the solution, and finally, an important acknowledgement for our farmers—land cannot do it all.”

“This makes it clear that there must be a rapid and orderly transition to clean energy in order to reduce Australia’s climate pollution,” Morgan-Schmidt added.

Some of the impacts of global warming area already clearly being felt across rural Australia. Earlier this month, the NSW Rural Fire Service brought forward the start of the ‘bush fire’ season for large parts of rural NSW, recognising that the impacts of warmer temperatures and ongoing drought condition across the state have raised the risk of damaging fires even in winter months.

“Bushfire conditions in Australia are becoming more extreme and unpredictable as a result of climate change,” member of the Climate Council and former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, Greg Mullins said.

“We need real leadership from our Federal Government. It must adopt a credible climate policy and Australia must continue the transition to renewables with storage technologies,” Mullins added.

In its report, the IPCC estimated that the cost of bushfires on the Australian economy is around US$8.5 billion (A$12.5 billion) annually.

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