Yesterday leading international experts on climate change, the IPCC, presented their latest report on the impacts of climate change on humanity, and what we can do about it. It’s a lengthy report, so we’ve boiled it down to Oxfam's five key takeaways on climate change and hunger.
1. Climate change: the impacts on crops are worse than we thought.
Climate change has already meant declines in global yields of staple crops, and it is set to get worse.
Not so long ago, some people suggested crops could actually grow better because of climate change. Not any more. The IPCC is clear that we are already seeing the effect of climate change on food production. That will come as no surprise to farmers like Vladimir or Auntie Jacoba. But what is more striking is that the IPCC finds that climate change has meant significant declines not just in some areas in developing countries, but in aggregate global yields for staple crops like wheat and maize. Harvests will continue to be hit hard in the future, both in developing countries and in major crop exporters, at the same time as demand for crops is expected to rise rapidly. That doesn't add up to a more food secure future for our planet.
2. Climate change also means higher food prices for most people.
Most people will feel the impact of climate change on food through the price they pay at their local market or supermarket.
In the years since the last IPCC report, there have been 3 global food price spikes, each linked in part to extreme weather that hit harvests hard. The IPCC gives a cautious estimate that food prices may rise due to climate change by 3-84% by 2050. Oxfam expects food prices to approximately double by 2030, with around half due to climate change, with further spikes linked to extreme weather to come on top of that. That's a massive problem for anyone spending upwards of 50% of their income on food, but increasingly we'll all feel the pinch of higher prices for things like premium coffee or chocolate.
3. Without action, climate change will reverse the fight against hunger – perhaps by several decades.
Right now hunger levels worldwide are going down, though not nearly fast enough. But the IPCC cites studies which project a reversal of this progress.
By 2050 an extra 50 million people – that's the population of Spain – could be at risk of hunger because of climate change, and an extra 25 million under-fives malnourished – that's the same as all the under-fives in the US and Canada combined. Availability of calories per person is set to fall lower than the levels in 2000. If we are serious about getting to zero hunger by 2025 and staying there, we need a huge increase in climate action – both in adaptation and cutting emissions.
4. It is not too late to act, but we need to get serious about adaptation.
We must over-come major adaptation deficits to cope with climate impacts on food in the near-term.
Eradicating hunger by 2025 will take a massive increase in efforts to adapt our food systems to climate change. But as we outlined in a briefing last week, the world is currently woefully unprepared. The IPCC for the first time recognises a funding gap between the finance needed for adaptation – in the order of $100bn per year – and the amounts that are actually flowing (something Oxfam has long shouted about). The countries that have done most to cause climate change should help to pay this bill in poorer countries. But Oxfam estimates countries have received only around 2% of the money they need from the adaptation funds provided to them in the three years since the Copenhagen climate summit.
5. We must cut greenhouse gas emissions now.
Unless we cut greenhouse gas emissions now too, we will surpass our capacity to adapt in the second half of this century. The IPCC is clear that adaptation alone will not be enough.
By 2050, on our current path, risks to food security in many countries will pass “beyond projected adaptive capacity”. This means there is little we can do to prevent permanent and irreversible damage to food production or the means by which people can buy food. The IPCC suggests this will result in “large risks to food security, globally and regionally” and may mean “current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations”.
Oxfam is starting to see the limits to adaptation in our own work even today. In Zimbabwe, a previously successful irrigation scheme that has helped farmers to thrive in spite of more erratic rainfall hit the buffers when water levels dropped too low as a result of extreme drought. The IPCC describes the biological temperature limits of crops, beyond which they simply will not grow. The implication is clear: unless we rapidly reduce our emissions now, alongside a huge increase in adaptation efforts, runaway climate change will end our chances of winning the fight against hunger. Will ours be the generation to let that happen?