Rio +20: The Climate Challenge List
Tue 19 Jun 2012
As world leaders, academics and scientists gather for the Rio +20 conference to try to reach agreement on sustainable growth, controlling world emissions and managing the growing impact of climate change, we look at the recent past to identify potential climate challenges ahead.
There is growing evidence that prolonged heatwaves are likely to lead to a greater incidence of wildfires, particularly in Southern Europe and the Western United States. 2009 saw wildfires raging out of control in Spain, France, Greece and Italy. In Spain, this destroyed more land in just a few days than the entire wildfire season of 2008.
In 2010 and 2011, wildfires devastated large swathes of Russia’s agricultural land. In 2011, these destroyed 618,000 hectares while in 2010, the loss of crops to wildfires in the country forced Russia to impose a ban on grain exports – creating a spike in the price of these commodities on international markets..
The severity of flooding on communities is affecting a growing number of people across the world. In both 2009 and 2011, floods in southern India took hundreds of lives and left millions homeless. The 2011 Thailand floods were the largest insured fresh-water loss in history. The Mississippi floods of 2011 disrupted an estimated 13% of US petroleum refinery output, resulting in a rise in petrol prices.
In Europe last year, flash flooding resulted in a state of emergency being declared by Italy and Czech Republic. In China last year, floods in Eastern China affected an estimated 5 million people, killing 17, disrupting 1,000 businesses and decimating crops. Analysts have predicted crop shortages in China could affect global food prices. Half the world’s population (3bn) live within 200 kilometres of the coastline. If current trends continue, this could double to 6bn by 2025.
The incidence, onset and severity of drought is increasing across Europe, the south-west US and West Africa, with mounting economic and human costs. A 2011 European Commission study estimated droughts in Europe had cost their economies $100 billion over the last 30 years. Last year, the charity World Vision estimated the drought in the Horn of Africa killed tens of thousands of children and pushed millions of families to the brink of starvation.
Drought can exacerbate dust storms with the south west US experiencing an ever increasing number. Last July a dust storm in Phoenix closed the airport and cut off power for 10,000 people. Drought is leading to an increase in subsidence in parts of Europe. In France, for example, subsidence-related claims have risen by over 50% in the last 20 years, costing the affected regions an average €340 million a year.
Drought also affects water management and hydrology – in the Netherlands these now cause power restrictions in two out of every five years. New technologies for transporting water from areas in surplus to those in deficit and de-salination will become increasingly important in the years to come.
The world’s demand for water has tripled over the last 50 years. All the big three grain producers – China, India and the US - are over-pumping aquifers to meet growing water needs. More than half of the world's population lives in countries where water tables are falling.
Pestilence, weeds and infestation
Climate change encourages the march northwards of weeds, which compete with agricultural crops and often win. In the US, for example, it’s been calculated that southern farmers lose 64% of their soybean crop to invasive weeds – the consequences for food supply and price as weeds head northwards are significant. In the US alone, the government spends $11 billion a year on agricultural weed control.
Insects and pathogens also thrive in warming temperatures, which may lead to an increasing use of pesticides as the size of areas affected grows. Earlier springs and warmer winters will also lead to growing insect populations
Extreme weather events encourage outbreaks of disease and infestation; flooding leads to a growth in fungal growth and nematodes while drought leads to increases in locust and white fly populations.
The spread of insects may also create a positive climate change ‘feedback’ loop, as greenhouse gas emissions increase temperatures, creating the right environment for insect infestation and habitat destruction. It’s been estimated that the trees destroyed by an outbreak of mountain pine beetles in British Columbia, for example, could release nearly 1 billion megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – the equivalent of five years of emissions from Canada’s entire transport sector.
The Arctic is warming more swiftly than anywhere else on earth. As it does so, Arctic summers witness a growing retreat of regional sea ice year-on-year. In 2011, annual near-surface air temperatures over much of the Arctic Ocean were 1.5 degrees centigrade higher than the 1981 – 2010 baseline, while Arctic sea ice coverage fell to a low of 4.33 million square kilometres – 2.38 million square kilometres less than the 1979 – 2000 average.
Projections indicate that the Arctic could see its first ice-free summer within the next 25 to 40 years and, as it becomes less white, it will absorb more heat and reflect less away from earth. This is likely to increase the rate of warming globally in a process known as ‘Arctic amplification.’
The opening up of the Arctic presents new opportunities for energy extraction – and significant new risks. The environmental impact of an oil spill in this pristine environment would be incalculable .
While there is no conclusive evidence that climate change causes tropical storms, it is possible that climate change is increasing their severity. There appears, for example, to have been a poleward shift in the main Northern and Southern Hemisphere extra-tropical storm tracks.
The costliest hurricane to hit the US to date has been Katrina, which came ashore in 2005. The total economic loss caused by Katrina has been estimated to be as high as $250 billion, taking into account the damage, disrupted gas production and general impact on national economic growth. Around 300,000 homes in New Orleans were rendered uninhabitable and over 1,200 people were killed.
Hurricanes and cyclones have been responsible for some of the highest death tolls of natural catastrophes ever in South East Asia. In 1970, the Bay of Bengal tropical cyclone killed 300,000 people while 130,000 died when a cyclone struck Myanmar.
Even ‘weakened’ hurricanes can cause major flooding and damage – Katrina had reduced in strength from a Cat 5 to a Cat 3 level hurricane by the time it made landfall. Up until 2011, of the top ten net claims at Lloyd’s for single events, four were due to hurricanes.
Attempts to ‘defuse’ hurricanes as they develop have so far proved unsuccessful. More recently, greater importance has been placed on developing better early-warning systems using real-time satellite imagery.
In November 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report warning that the frequency of heatwaves will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world if carbon dioxide and other gases continue to be produced at today’s levels.
A 2009 study by Kings College and the Met Office predicted that the number of heat-related deaths in cities like London will quadruple by 2080. Given that the British heatwave of 2003 is estimated to have killed at least 3,000 people and the Russian heatwave of 2010 led to over 55,500 deaths these predications have serious implications.
Helping societies adapt to climate change
Lloyd’s believes strongly that insurance has a vital role to play in helping businesses and communities adapt to the effects of climate change. We were a founding member of the ClimateWise initiative, which provides insurers with a framework to set out how they build climate change into their business operations.
Find out more about Climatewise