Predicting the future under climate change: trouble or blue skies ahead

ID-10066027Several recent publications have explored how the world will transform under climate change, both physically and in terms of our society. And the picture is complex, not helped by the difficulties in trying to predict both global and local changes. Conflict over resources is predicted to intensify but this will be location-specific, for example some areas of the world will see an increase in the amount of land suitable for agriculture while others, often in poorer and more farming-dependent regions will see a decrease. A new global calculator and accompanying report, however, presents more positive findings – that we can be prosperous and combat climate change simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, we seem to have become more fixated on trying to predict the future since the words “global warming” were first uttered and such endeavours are becoming more critical to driving high-level negotiations and planning for a future that is difficult to imagine. Despite the science, projecting patterns and trends into the short- or long-term is open to significant assumptions and sensitive to a huge number of factors, meaning it is far from accurate. That said such efforts to predict the climate and its impact on farming, natural resources, energy use and society are incredibly valuable in opening our eyes to what the future may hold, what trade-offs we may have to make and why we need to act now.

A paper released late last year entitled “Global Agricultural Land Resources – A High Resolution Suitability Evaluation and Its Perspectives until 2100 under Climate Change Conditions” uses computer-based estimations of global agricultural suitability to grow 16 food and energy crops based on climatic, soil and topographic conditions. Authors compare land suitability for these crops between the periods 1981-2010 and 2071-2100 (under climate change scenario SRES A1B). Overall agriculturally suitable land increases by 4.8 million km2, when protected areas and dense rainforest are excluded, but the majority of this additional land is only marginally suitable. While cropland is estimated to increase in the northern hemisphere (in such countries as Russia, China and Canada), land suitability as well as number of cropping seasons is predicted to decline in tropical areas in the southern hemisphere. At present, Africa has the highest levels of land suitable for farming that is not currently under agriculture (some 20%) but much of this land is rainforest, grassland or savannah, and in the future reductions in the number of cropping seasons and declining land suitability will likely limit this potential expansion. Indeed the highest absolute net loss of suitable farming areas under this climate scenario is predicted to occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is particularly worrying in light of a different prediction: in a 2011 FAO publication, author Bruinsma estimated some 1.2 million km2 of land will need to be converted to agriculture by 2030 to meet demand, and this conversion will largely occur in South America and Sub Saharan Africa. If climate and other environmental conditions in these areas reduce the suitability of land to farming, this could not only re-shape global production patterns but would exacerbate hunger and food shortages in areas already suffering the highest burdens.

Deficiencies in resources such as food, and their role in global conflicts, were recently discussed in Rome in response to a report by the Earth Security Group, entitled Managing global resource risks and resilience in the 21st century. The 2015 Earth Security Index. As supply chains become more and more global and interconnected, shortages and conflict in one area can now quickly spread to other countries. It is partly multinational companies, which have played a part in integrating commodity chains, which can significantly contribute to mitigating risks and building resilience. The report listed the four most important risks to commodities sectors as “water quality and availability, conflicts associated with land tenure and deforestation, the stability of energy supplies, and extreme weather events that amplify other pressures”. Investing in boosting productivity and more efficient and effective distribution systems for food and water are critical to building resilience.

Such reports regarding future resource challenges and climate change tend, as expected, to be rather doom and gloom. But a recent report, Prosperous living for the world in 2050: insights from the global calculator, paints another, slightly more hopeful,l picture.

Developed by an international team and funded by the UK Government’s International Climate Fund and the EU’s Climate-KIC, the Global Calculator is “a model of the world’s energy, land and food systems that allows users to explore the options for reducing global emissions to 2050, and to see the climate consequences of these choices to 2100”. Its aim is to be a free, interactive and open-source tool that anyone can use to gain a greater understanding of how our actions influence the climate. For further information on the methodology used in the Global Calculator and how to use it visit the official website: http://uncached-site.globalcalculator.org/.

In the report, authors sought to answer questions around whether we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to half of today’s levels (in order to ensure global mean temperature increases of less than 2°C) while at the same time maintaining and improving living standards by 2050. Interestingly results from the Global Calculator indicate that this is possible: that the future 10 billion people in the world could “eat well, travel more and live in more comfortable homes” while also lowering emissions to target levels. Achieving this will require huge transformations in our technologies and fuels, smarter use of land resources and massive reforestation. Although these objectives are physically possible, whether they are politically or socially possible is another matter. But let’s end this post on a positive note, a strange occurrence when discussing climate change. Those things we want to achieve are likely achievable we just need the motivation, leadership and commitment to achieve them.

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