Wake up and save the coffee: Making development climate-resilient

Click to read teh report
Click to read the report

Today’s post is by Michael Mullan of the Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division of the OECD Environment Directorate

Compared with species extinctions, heat waves, and hunger, the prospect of lousy coffee was, unsurprisingly, not a major focus of the latest IPCC Fifth Assessment report. Yet, a minor inconvenience for consumers could be a serious challenge for Ethiopia and Colombia, two major coffee producing countries facing growing risks from climate change. A new OECD report describes what they’re doing to sustain development in a changing climate.

Coffee first grew in Ethiopia (although the story of the dancing goats is probably a myth) with the temperate highlands providing ideal conditions for cultivating high-quality Arabica beans. Coffee production accounts for about one-third of export earnings and it supports millions of households. Historically, agricultural productivity has been low but this is now changing. As part of the rapid growth of the wider economy, coffee production has increased dramatically in the past decade. Continuing this growth will help to realise Ethiopia’s goal of reaching middle-income status by 2025.

Climate variability and climate change could knock these plans off-track. Ethiopia’s coffee farmers depend on rainfall rather than irrigation, but it’s hard to predict how climate change will affect precipitation: projections for Ethiopia in the 2050s range from 25% drier to 30% wetter. And as temperatures increase, the area of land suitable for cultivating Arabica coffee will shrink. There are practical steps that can be taken now, such as planting more trees for shade, but these will only go so far. New varieties of coffee could be required – and these can take decades to develop. By the time that climate change manifests itself, it would be too late. Preparations must start now.

To do this, the government has launched the Climate Resilient Green Economy initiative. As part of this process, 1000 potential adaptation options were identified for the agricultural sector and, from these, 41 immediate priorities were identified. These range from improved provision of weather data to enhancing access to credit and supporting economic diversification.

The striking thing is that 38 of the 41 priorities identified for agriculture were already being implemented to some extent. The primary need is to scale-up and support co-ordination of these actions, rather than radically change course. This makes sense given uncertainty about the future changes and the potential to change course in response to new information.

Despite Colombia having a very different context to Ethiopia, there are parallels between their approaches to building resilience to climate change. Coffee accounts for $2.8 billion of exports from Colombia and coffee growing supports hundreds of thousands of people. However, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that agricultural productivity (including coffee) could decline 45% by the end of this century. A formal adaptation strategy will be released this year, but there has already been considerable progress made: gathering evidence on likely impacts; building capacity of farmers to prepare for climate change; and implementing adaptation measures.

Looking outside of agriculture, Colombia relies heavily upon hydropower for energy, but limited storage capacity means that the system is vulnerable to droughts. Climate change is projected to increase this risk. In reconciling climate change and the energy demands from economic growth, the government has identified a range of measures: improving energy efficiency, diversifying supplies, and conserving watersheds and ecosystems. As was the case for agriculture in Ethiopia, these measures all have the potential to yield near-term benefits while building resilience to potential risks.

Climate change is sometimes viewed as being too big, too complicated or too uncertain to prepare for. Ethiopia and Colombia are showing how it is possible to “cross the river by feeling the stones” – identifying practical steps to address current issues, while preparing for the longer-term consequences of climate change.

Useful links

OECD work on adaptation to climate change

OECD Environment Directorate

Guest author

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