Is global warming making us hungrier?
For more than a decade, annual data showed global hunger to be on the decline. But that has changed: According to the latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, hunger affected 815 million people in 2016, 38 million more than 2015, and malnutrition is threatening millions.
Research from my think tank, Copenhagen Consensus, has long helped to focus attention and resources on the most effective responses to malnutrition, both globally and in countries such as Haiti and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that the global response may be headed in the wrong direction.
FAO blames the rise in hunger on a proliferation of violent conflicts and “climate-related shocks” which means specific, extreme events such as floods and droughts.
But in the FAO’s press release, “climate-related shocks” becomes “climate change”.
The report itself links the two without citing evidence but the FAO’s communiqué goes further, declaring starkly: “World hunger again on the rise, driven by conflict and climate change.”
It may seem like a tiny step to go from blaming “climate-related shocks” to blaming “climate change”. Both terms relate to the weather. But that little difference means a lot, especially when it comes to the most important question: how do we help feed the world better? Jumping the gun and blaming climate change for today’s crises attracts attention but it makes us focus on the costliest and least effective responses.
The best evidence comes from the United Nations’ climate change panel, the IPCC, which has clearly shown that there has been no overall increase in droughts. While some parts of the world are experiencing more and worse droughts, others are experiencing fewer and lighter droughts. A comprehensive study in the journal Nature demonstrates that, since 1982, incidents of all categories of drought, from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought”, have decreased slightly. On flooding, IPCC is even blunter: It has “low confidence” at a global level whether climate change has caused more or less flooding.
What IPCC tells us is that by the end of the century, it is likely that worse droughts will affect some parts of the world. And it predicts – albeit with low confidence – that there could be more floods in some places.
Relying on climate policies to fight hunger is doomed. Any realistic carbon cuts will be expensive and have virtually no impact on climate by the end of the century. The Paris climate agreement, even if fully implemented up to 2030, would achieve just one percent of the cuts needed to keep temperature from rising more than 2oC, according to the UN. And it would cost $1 trillion a year or more – an incredibly expensive way to make no meaningful difference to a potential increase in flooding and droughts at the end of the century.
In fact, well-intentioned policies to combat global warming could very well be exacerbating hunger. Rich countries have embraced biofuels – energy derived from plants – to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. But the climate benefit is negligible: according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, deforestation, fertiliser and fossil fuels used in producing biofuels offset about 90 percent of the “saved” carbon dioxide. In 2013, European biofuels used enough land to feed 100 million people and the United States’ programme even more. Biofuel subsidies contributed to rising food prices and their swift growth was reined in only when models showed that up to another 135 million people could starve by 2020. But that means that the hunger of around 30 million people today can likely be attributed to these bad policies.
Moreover, climate policies divert resources from measures that directly reduce hunger. Our priorities seem skewed when climate policies promising a miniscule temperature impact will cost $1 trillion a year while the World Food Programme’s budget is 169 times lower, at $5.9 billion.
There are effective ways to produce more food. One of the best, as Copenhagen Consensus research has shown, is to get serious about investing in research and development to boost agricultural productivity. Through irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides and plant breeding, the Green Revolution increased world grain production by an astonishing 250 percent between 1950 and 1984, raising the calorie intake of the world’s poorest people and averting severe famines. We need to build on this progress.
Investing an extra $88 billion in agricultural R&D over the next 32 years would increase yields by an additional 0.4 percentage points every year, which could save 79 million people from hunger and prevent five million cases of child malnourishment. This would be worth nearly $3 trillion in social good, implying an enormous return of $34 for every dollar spent.
By the end of the century, the extra increase in agricultural productivity would be far greater than the damage to agricultural productivity suggested by even the worst-case scenarios of the effects of global warming. And there would be additional benefits: the World Bank has found that productivity growth in agriculture can be up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than productivity growth in other sectors.
We are at a turning point. After achieving dramatic gains against hunger and famine, we run the risk of backsliding, owing to poorly considered choices. The stakes are far too high for us to pick the wrong policies.
Bjørn Lomborg, a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School, is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, which seeks to study environmental problems and solutions using the best available analytical methods.
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