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World Bank Warns of Severe Threat to Food Supplies from Climate Change

Cover of the World Bank turn down the heat report on climate changeA new report from the World Bank, 'Turn Down the Heat' warns that already global warming of around 1.5°C above pre-industrial times is locked into the Earth's atmospheric system. Unless we act now to reduce emissions, warming of probably 4 degrees will occur within our century, and everyone will feel the impact, particularly the poor.

The report finds evidence all over the world, from the Andes in South America, to the mountains of central Asia where glaciers are receding. This is increasing the risk of floods in the short term; but after a few decades when the ice has melted, the opposite risk is the case: drought.

Since the areas of land supplied by these melt waters are part of the food baskets of the world, the conclusion is clear: our sources of food supply will dry up, quite literally.

The report explores the impact of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It confirms the findings of scientists from the IPCC expressed in its recent synthesis report

"Past emissions have set an unavoidable course of warming over the next two decades, which will affect the world's poorest and most vulnerable people the most," said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. "We cannot continue down the current path of unchecked, growing emissions."

Heat extremes like those in the United States in 2012 and Russia in 2010 will become more common. Melting permafrost will release methane, stored in the ice from previously decayed vegetation, which will only serve to increase the rate of warming.

The report is released in advance of next month's UN gathering of governments in Lima for another round of climate negotiations.

Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal is the third in a series of reports commissioned by the World Bank Group from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

The first report looked at risks globally if the world were to warm by 4°C.

The second report focused on three regions – Africa, South Asia, and South East Asia – and the risks to food security, water security, and low-lying cities exposed to dangerous sea level rise and vulnerability to storms.

The threats to food security include:

  1. reducing water supply to low land farms from spring melt water in the mountains;
  2. increased risk of large-scale forest loss in the Amazon, reducing carbon dioxide uptake and biodiversity;
  3. the loss of up to 50% of current fish catches in Caribbean seas;
  4. intense pressure on crops because of dry up, hotter conditions and changes in pests and diseases;
  5. changes to the growing season.

Below: The global threat to water resources with 2° and 4° of global warming:

The global threat to water resources with 2° of global warming

The global threat to water resources with 4° of global warming

 "The good news is that there is a growing consensus on what it will take to make changes to the unsustainable path we are currently on," President Kim said. "Action on climate change does not have to come at the expense of economic growth."

It calls on governments to provide clear, consistent policy direction that reflects the true costs of emissions.

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies

In September 2009, the G20 agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies but the shift is not happening fast enough, according to the 2014 World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency.

Global subsidies for fossil fuels totaled nearly $550 billion in 2013. That figure is $25 billion lower than that of the previous year, but the IEA notes that is still not enough of a shift to make renewable energy competitive in the countries with the highest subsidies. 

The article linked to above notes that "It is not just renewable energy that is losing out to fossil fuels because of subsidies. Energy-efficient technologies, such as LEDs, are far less attractive in regions where oil and gas are heavily subsidized."

Understanding risks 

The World Bank report was commissioned from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), whose Christopher Reyer said that what distinguishes this report is that it analyses "existing climate science findings to identify which are the impacts that really make a difference."

Bill Hare, also a lead author of the report, added: "Assessing the entire chain of climate impacts - for example, how heat waves trigger crop yield declines and how those trigger health impacts - is key to understanding the risks that climate change poses to development."

"Tackling climate change is a matter of reason, but also of justice," says another lead author, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK. "Global warming impacts in the next decades are likely to hit those hardest that contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions: the global poor."

Developing countries are expected to experience the most severe climate impacts, notably in the tropics, while lacking the means to build resilience. And within these countries, again those parts of the population with the least means are most vulnerable to additional stress.

Climate change impacts hence "make it more difficult to reduce poverty and put in jeopardy the livelihoods of millions of people. They also have serious consequences for development budgets, and for institutions like the World Bank Group, where our investments, support and advice must now also build resilience and help affected populations adapt," says Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group.

He has a clear warning for world leaders preparing to meet in Lima: they "should embrace affordable solutions like carbon pricing and policy choices that shift investment to clean public transport, cleaner energy and more energy efficient factories, buildings and appliances."