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Climate change: A hunger crisis in the making

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Our escalating climate emergency is also a humanitarian emergency. Even if rising temperatures can be kept within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels (and currently we are on course for 2.7°C) the world can expect a future characterised by worsening global food crises, biodiversity loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and shorter growing seasons. Fresh water will become scarcer and disease and malnutrition will rise, contributing to displacement and conflict.

These impacts are disproportionately felt by poorer countries who contribute least to the problem. For example, the total greenhouse gas emissions of the 27 most vulnerable countries that are already hunger hotspots (who have least financial resources to cope and adapt) is less than 5% of the total emissions of G7 nations. Worst-hit are those already experiencing marginalisation and gender-based inequalities – especially women and girls, communities already living in extreme poverty, and those who rely on agriculture.

HUNGER AND MALNUTRITION: Climate change has significant implications for people’s diet and nutrition. Reduced access to sufficiently nutritious foods impairs nutritional status and diminishes resilience, particularly in low-income communities. Eight out of ten of the 35 countries at greatest risk from climate change are already experiencing extreme food insecurity. In these 27 countries alone, over 117 million people are living with crisis or worse level hunger. Even in contexts where disasters and drastic changes in climate change may not have an immediate effect, nutrition and health outcomes are likely to worsen.

CHILD AND MATERNAL NUTRITION: Climate change impacts maternal, neonatal, and child health through maternal nutrition, environmental risks and infectious disease.

Nearly one in three children in the 27 foodinsecure countries most at risk from climate change live with chronic malnutrition and stunting (harming their capacity to learn and develop) or with acute malnutrition, which can be fatal. One global study found that in five of six regions, higher temperatures are associated with decreased dietary diversity. By 2050, higher CO2 emissions could push an additional 138 million people into zinc deficiency, with disproportionate burdens for children and pregnant or lactating women who have heightened nutritional requirements.

YIELDS, LIVESTOCK, AND FISHERIES:

In 2020, 2.37 billion people were affected by malnutrition and irregular access to nutritional needs. Climate change is set to affect yield quantity and quality, reproduction, growth rates and increased temperature-related stress and deaths in livestock, as well as feed quality and spread of pests, ruminant and zoonotic diseases. Water-resource availability for livestock will decrease because of increased runoff and reduced groundwater resources. Globally, a decline in livestock of 7–10% is expected at 2°C, with associated economic losses of between $9.7 and $12.6 billion.

Increased temperatures, ocean acidification, disease, parasites and pathogens and other drivers are affecting fisheries (which play a vital role in the food security of many vulnerable countries) and hatching grounds. Rising sea levels and storm intensification pose an additional risk.

GENDER-BASED INEQUITIES: Women, children, marginalised groups, and communities living in poverty bear the brunt of climate change. Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster, and women are also often at greatest risk of displacement: the United Nations Development Programme estimates that 80% of climate-displaced people are women. And when lower yields spell a drop in income and food scarcity, women and girls are often the first to eat less. Lack of land rights leave women unable to develop land to meet and adapt to their nutrition needs, and they are often excluded from decisions on how to overcome climate challenges.

FOOD PRICES: Increased demand for dwindling resources, changes in tax and subsidy regimes, and fossil fuel availability and prices (pressurised by the global shift to more resource intensive, meat-based diets) are diminishing access to adequate nutrition for less well-off communities, especially women and children.

BIODIVERSITY LOSS: In 2021, the World Economic Forum announced that biodiversity loss is the third greatest threat facing humanity, behind weapons of mass destruction and state collapse. Since the 1900s, 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have swapped local varieties for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and today just 12 crops and five animal species provide 75% of the food we produce. This loss of agricultural diversity has contributed to climate change, ecosystem destruction and hunger.

THE STATE OF OUR OCEANS: Sea levels are rising, as are our oceans’ heat storage and acidification levels, diminishing the ocean’s capacity to moderate climate change. Rising sea levels cause saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers and inundation in low-lying areas and loss of land. The degradation of coastal ecosystems reduces protection against storms, tsunamis and other sudden-onset events, leaving people exposed and vulnerable and increasing their risk of displacement. Without intervention, between 145 million and 565 million people living in coastal areas today will be exposed to, and affected by, rising sea levels in the future.

WATER AND SANITATION: Changing rainfall patterns are escalating water scarcity in some regions and are set to drive increasing tensions over access to river catchments. At the same time, increased temperatures increase the demand for water by plants, animals and people. Climate change threatens to reverse progress in improving access to clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene, pushing more people into extreme poverty.

CONFLICT AND CLIMATE SECURITY: Climate change is increasingly seen as a threat to national security and a contributor to global conflicts, while climate-related risks make up the majority of the World Economic Forum’s 2021 threat report.30 The potential security consequences are far reaching and complex, and are already being felt throughout vulnerable regions. The 2019 IPCC31 Climate Change and Land report concludes that extreme weather and climate may lead to increased displacement and conflict. The eight worst food crises in 2019 were linked to both climate change impacts and conflict. Additional crises, such as Covid-19, add to this complexity. Climate projections anticipate a 54% increase in armed conflict (393,000 deaths) by 2030 in the absence of climate change mitigation.