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NATURE
9 March 2022 15:00

Cropped, 9 March 2022: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; IPCC report; Palm oil deforestation plunge

Multiple Authors

03.09.22
NatureCropped, 9 March 2022: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; IPCC report; Palm oil deforestation plunge

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Snapshot

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has shone the spotlight on two countries that are collectively responsible for nearly one-third of the world’s wheat exports. Experts are warning that the ongoing crisis could have negative impacts on food security around the world, especially in Africa and the Middle East.

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Palm oil-driven deforestation in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea hit a four-year low in 2021, said a new report by Chain Reaction Research. The drop is potentially attributable to a range of factors, including Covid-19 restrictions and “no deforestation, no peat” policies adopted by leading private players in the palm oil sector.

A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that global warming will affect the yields of major crops “sooner than previously anticipated”, highlighting a risk of “multi-breadbasket failures”. It found that crop loss because of drought has already affected about 75% of the “global harvested area” and that extreme weather events will push some areas “beyond the safe climatic space” for food production.

Key developments

Russian invasion disrupts food flows

SOARING PRICES: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago has pushed the price of wheat to “its highest levels in more than a decade”, CNBC reported. Russia is the world’s top exporter of wheat and Ukraine is in the top five. Maize prices also climbed to their highest level in nearly a year, CNBC added. Meanwhile, a resolution published over the weekend by the Ukrainian government “limit[s] the export of a number of socially important goods and…raw materials”, including wheat, maize and sunflower oil, EurActiv reported. The Russian invasion “has sparked a number of emergency contingency meetings” within the EU about maintaining and ensuring food security, the outlet said. Another piece in EurActiv warned that rises in the price of wheat “will likely hit Albanians hard” due to the country’s already-diminished reserves of wheat and reliance on imports from both Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that its food price index, which measures the monthly change in the prices of several types of commodities, reached an “all-time high” in February. It noted that since the index is based on prices averaged over the month, this value “only partly incorporates market effects stemming from the conflict in Ukraine”.

‘BAD NEWS’: The future “looks grim” for countries in the Middle East and North Africa that rely on Russia and Ukraine for wheat imports, Al Jazeera wrote. Some of these countries are already on the “brink of crisis” due to “rising prices and insufficient supply”, the outlet continued. Al Jazeera noted that in addition to the potential effects of the war on harvest in Ukraine, the “planned expulsion” of Russia from the SWIFT banking system “is expected to hit the country’s exports”. In the Conversation, Wandile Sihlobo – the chief economist of South Africa’s agricultural business chamber – noted that while African farmers have an “opportunity for financial gains” due to rising prices on the global market, these increases are “bad news for consumers who have already experienced food price rises over the past two years”. Siloho pointed out that increases in the prices of grain and oilseed have been “among the key drivers of global food price rises since 2020”.

SKY-HIGH FERTILISERS: The conflict is also interfering with the global trade of fertilisers. Russia “is a major low-cost exporter of many kinds of crop nutrients”, with its fertilisers being exported to every continent, according to Bloomberg. Prices “were already sky-high”, the outlet noted, due to gas shortages, weather disasters and increased tariffs. Reuters reported that the world’s biggest fertiliser producer, Nutrien, warned of “prolonged disruptions to the global supply” of crop nutrients. Reuters added that economic sanctions on Russia could “hinder its exports of natural gas, potash and nitrogen” – three key components of fertilisers. A separate piece in Reuters wrote that the country’s trade ministry has “recommended the country’s fertiliser producers temporarily halt exports”.

FOOD SECURITY SPOTLIGHT: Several outlets wrote about the wider implications of the invasion for global food security. BBC News noted that “climate change and growing populations had already been adding to the challenges the global food production system faces”, which have been further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. The outlet quoted an executive from Yara, an international fertiliser manufacturing company, as saying “it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be”. Experts told the New Humanitarian of the need for “channelling more funds into food assistance in the countries likely to be hardest hit” by supply disruptions, while an opinion piece in the New York Times warned that “food disruptions won’t remain an insular crisis”. In Bloomberg, columnist David Fickling wrote that “food is one area where Russia’s sway is set to increase rather than deteriorate in the coming decades”, and warned that the country can “use that to its advantage” in future crises and conflicts. A piece in the Revelator also noted that Ukraine is “home to dozens of unique and endangered species”, many of which “could find themselves further threatened by the invasion”.

IPCC report

AG IMPACTS: On 28 February, the IPCC released its latest expansive review on how climate change impacts the world. The “biggest impact will be on agricultural systems, undermining food security and nutrition worldwide”, Time reported, and could “soon impact the grocery bills of people even in wealthy countries”. As Carbon Brief reported in our in-depth Q&A on the report, the authors warn that climate change is “increasingly hindering efforts” to meet the nutritional and calorific needs of humanity, with about one-third of “currently suitable area” projected to become unsuitable by the end of the century in a high emissions scenario. They note with high confidence that extreme weather events will push some current food-growing areas “beyond the safe climatic space for production” and are already affecting “all dimensions of food security”.

HUNGER HOTSPOTS: While the report found that climate change has so far increased wheat yields in northern Europe and eastern Asia, crop yields and quality have been negatively impacted in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Caribbean, southern Asia and western and southern Europe. According to the report, there is high confidence that people at risk of “hunger, malnutrition and diet-related mortality” will increase, projections ranging from 8-80 million under different scenarios, with nearly 80% of this at-risk population in Africa and Asia. Warmer temperatures have already lowered yields of corn, wheat and rice by around 5% since 1961, which will fall an additional 10-25% for each degree of warming, Mother Jones reported.

DIFFERENT DRIVERS: In addition to warmer temperatures and extreme weather, continued and heightened CO2 levels in the atmosphere are projected to cause reductions “in a wide range of minerals and nutrients” of 5-10% in crops, the IPCC said. Meanwhile, warming of 2C by 2050 is “projected to result in 7-10% declines in livestock numbers” globally. Impacts on fisheries “will be particularly high in tropical regions” due to large reductions in catch, with serious consequences for low-income countries where there are few nutritional alternatives. 

SOLUTIONS: Aside from reviewing and projecting impacts, the report had a strong focus on options for adaptation. The proposed inclusion of the term “nature-based solutions” in the Summary for Policymakers was widely contested by governments who relegated it to a footnote, as Climate Home News reported. The report itself noted that these solutions “provide adaptation and mitigation benefits” but “cannot be regarded as an alternative to, or a reason to delay, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions”.

Palm oil deforestation declines 

DEFORESTATION DECLINES: A new study by thinktank Chain Reaction Research shows that deforestation from palm oil in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea has hit its lowest levels since 2017. From 90,000 hectares (ha) of forest and peatlands cleared in 2019 for oil palm cultivation in 2018, only 19,000ha was cleared in 2021, according to Chain Reaction’s estimates. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s top two palm oil producers, accounting for over 85% of the world’s exports, with Papua New Guinea coming in sixth, according to the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC).

POWERFUL PLAYERS: Nearly half of all land cleared (42%) can be attributed to the 10 biggest deforesters who cleared 8,000 hectares of forest, said the study. These include firms run by Indonesia’s former minister for trade and others with tight links to Malaysia’s royal family. Notably, none of the top 10 deforesters in 2021 ranked by CRR can be conclusively linked to international supply chains covered by “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” (NDPE) policies. However, the study does find that two major deforesters have links to NDPE supply chains of major brands such as Unilever and Kellogg, via raw material supplies and minority shares in a mill.

PEAK PALM OIL? Researchers at the not-for-profit consultancy Aidenvironment – who have been tracking deforestation in the region since 2009 – told Carbon Brief that it was hard to attribute deforestation declines to any one cause, but the trend is “probably linked to Covid-19 and supply chain restrictions”, especially because supply chains have become “a lot more transparent and easy to track”. The palm oil sector in the region is heavily dependent on migrant labour, as a comment in Mongabay on “peak palm oil” pointed out, so pandemic-related labour shortages have definitely played a part – but just how much “is still a massive unknown”, said CRR researcher Chris Wiggs. CRR’s Indonesia-based analyst Okita Miraningrum noted that “pressures are increasing from the international markets, but you can’t mix the NDPE policies and [Indonesian] government deforestation policies”. She added: “They have a very different idea of what zero deforestation means, and different definitions of what are forests.” Meanwhile, agribusiness analysts have predicted that palm oil prices “could hit new record highs in the coming months”, which could reverse gains for forests.

News and views

WHERE’S THE BEEF: An Unearthed investigation found that lobbyists for the US beef industry considered the Global Methane Pledge made at COP26 – which targets a 30% methane reduction by 2030 – a “win” for their industry. Unearthed wrote that the pledge “only makes concrete demands of the energy and waste sectors”, leaving livestock “relatively unscathed”. The outlet noted that agriculture lobbyists are “running a campaign” to change how methane’s warming impact is measured; if successful, the sector could “claim to be climate neutral without significantly cutting emissions”. Unearthed also noted that the COP26 “win” was “but one example of the industry’s positive relationship with the Biden administration on climate issues”.

FLOODED FARMS: Farmers in New South Wales and Queensland in Australia are reeling from “enormous” infrastructure and livestock losses after torrential rains and floods, the Guardian reported, “with concern some may not be able to recover from the latest disaster”. According to agricultural analysts’ estimates, cattle affected by flooding would amount to about 475,000, or about 2% of the national herd. Some cows were even found on beaches and rooftops. Flooding has also led to the loss of crucial infrastructure, such as tractors, fencing and generators, while milk tankers struggling to get farms were “stuck on highways”. The region has seen two years of floods and devastating wildfires.

GAMBIAN FOOD SECURITY: Food security in the Gambia “looks very critical”, with staple food prices up more than 20% since 2016, wrote the Point, a Gambian newspaper. The country recently released an updated analysis of food security and vulnerability, which found that 13.4% of the west African nation is food insecure, an increase from 8% in 2016. Speaking at the launch of the report, Yasuhiro Tsumura, a representative of the World Food Program, said that the “growing impacts of climate changes and climate shocks” had been compounded by the loss of tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, the Gambia’s cereal harvest was 18% lower than its five-year average, the Point reported.

PEATLAND PLAN: A leaked version of the European Commission’s nature restoration proposal, due out later this month, requires that member states “restore at least 70% of drained peatlands under agricultural use by 2050”, EurActiv reported. Restoration and rewetting of peatlands are a “key part” of the EU’s climate and biodiversity ambitions; the leaked draft “outlines a plan which progressively increases in ambition from now until 2050”, EurActiv wrote. However, the proposal also includes provisions for “alternative ways” in which the restored peatlands can be used “productively”, including cultivating certain types of reeds and timber, growing blueberries and cranberries and grazing water buffaloes.

Extra reading

New science

Doubling of annual forest carbon loss over the tropics during the early twenty-first century
Nature Sustainability

Total carbon loss from tropical forests doubled over the early part of the 21st century, according to a new study. Researchers used satellite imagery to map the loss of tropical forest cover between 2001-19, then used this to quantify the loss of carbon from both above- and below-ground biomass, as well as soil carbon. They found that while nearly 1GtCO2 per year was lost from tropical forests over the period of 2001-5, about 2GtCO2 was lost per year between 2015-9. They noted that their estimates are higher than those based on land-use data and wrote that their results “suggest that existing strategies to reduce forest loss are not successful”.

Warming, increase in precipitation, and irrigation enhance greening in High Mountain Asia
Communications Earth & Environment

Melting snow, increased rainfall and intense irrigation are turning High-Mountain Asia “green”, new research showed. Researchers “holistic[ally]” analysed remote sensing data to identify what was driving one of the highest increases in vegetation greenness on Earth. Regions such as the Tibetan Plateau are “experiencing one of the highest rates of warming in the world”, the study found, leading to a decrease in snow cover, an increase in soil moisture and greater greening. Low-lying, densely populated areas – such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra and Indus basins – have also become greener because of “human activities” – including intensive irrigation. In mid and low elevation areas, such as the Irrawady basin, increased rainfall has driven the greening trend. The authors concluded that accounting for these drivers to “represent their dynamics and impacts in Earth system models and future projections” is important.

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar and Daisy Dunne. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]

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