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What the IPCC report means for the coffee industry

What the IPCC report means for the coffee industry

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in August that highlighted the urgent need to address climate change. Global Coffee Report asks what this report means for the coffee industry.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, in August 2021, it made headlines around the world. 

The report, the first of three instalments in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, says scientists are observing changes in every region and across the whole climate system, many of which are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the changes already set in motion, such as rising sea level, will be irreversible for hundreds to thousands of years.

World Coffee Research CEO Jennifer ‘Vern’ Long tells Global Coffee Report this information isn’t new to people, but the IPCC report has brought a new level of urgency to the dilemma.

“The IPCC Working Group I has gone from caveating comments as being ‘likely’ [66 per cent or more confidence] or ‘very likely’ [90 per cent or more] in previous reports, to ‘extremely likely’ [95 per cent or more]. The confidence in the data is really high across many domains, so there’s no denying the realities,” Long says.

“It is unequivocal. The contribution of human-induced climate change is real, and it is having adverse consequences for coffee production areas and logistics and shipping.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the Working Group I report, which addresses the most up-to-date physical understanding of the climate system and climate change, a “code red for humanity”. 

The Working Group II report will focus on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and is scheduled to be finalised in February 2022. A report from Working Group III on mitigation is intended to be finalised the following month.

Dr Aaron Davis, Senior Research Leader of Crops and Global Change at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, says the release of the first instalment coincided with a series of shocking climatic events.

“Generally, not a great deal has changed since the Fifth Assessment Report of 2014, or the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C of 2018, the big difference is the increased confidence for seriously negative outcomes,” Davis says. “The latest findings from the IPCC came at a time when many parts of the world, including Europe and the Americas, were dealing with forest fires, droughts, and heatwaves, caused by severe weather events. That has certainly put more emphasis on what was in the 2021 IPCC report.

“Just look at what’s happening in Brazil with drought and its impact of global coffee prices. If droughts become more frequent and severe, not just in Brazil but many other coffee producing countries, as identified in the IPCC report, the impact on global production and supply will be considerable.” 

In 2015, almost 200 governments signed the Paris Agreement, with the goal to keep the rise in mean global temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably limit the increase to 1.5°C. The IPCC report found that unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.

“To keep global warming below 1.5°C, we will have to undertake immediate large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This needs to be undertaken as a coordinated, global effort, otherwise the world will grind to a halt. It’s feasible but it won’t be easy. Regardless, we have to keep warming to below 1.5°C; although it’s only half a degree more, 2°C warming would be much worse,” Davis says.

“At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health. Global food production systems, including coffee, will find it extremely difficult to continue to produce the volumes they do now.”

Urgent action is needed to address the impact of climate change on coffee and the world.

Providing a clearer picture
The IPCC reports projects that with every incremental increase in global warming, different regions will see increased frequency and intensity of hot extremes, heavy rainfall and associated flooding, agricultural and ecological droughts, and proportion of intense natural disasters.

One of the elements of the report WCR’s Long considers most pressing for the coffee industry is the limited availability of data on precipitation levels in many regions crucial to coffee growing.

“The report features a quick visual mapping of extreme heat, drought, and precipitation projections, and they have plenty of data for the first two, but for precipitation, there’s insufficient data for most of the coffee producing areas on that map,” Long says.

“In coffee, precipitation matters to us for everything from projecting yields to enabling producing countries to plan for managing infrastructure repair and maintenance for getting coffee to ports. It’s difficult to do that in regions outside of Brazil and Vietnam, where there’s solid data and reporting, like Central America and East Africa.”

Contributing to and advocating for research networks in these regions is one of the ways the global coffee industry can contribute to the discourse around climate change.

“Building and participating in these research networks will provide us with more data to predict what farmers and those responsible for basic transportation infrastructure will need in different countries and figure out what we can do to support them,” Long says.

Another way she suggests coffee production could make a better impact is through carbon sequestering. Such examples noted in the report, included selecting appropriate varieties and species with greater root mass, or increasing biomass on farmland. Long says coffee farms could sequester more carbon dioxide than they emit. The IPCC report says with high confidence that anthropogenic CO2 removal could compensate for residual emissions or exceed them if implemented at scale.

“The next two IPCC reports will focus more on adaption and mitigation, but even in the first instalment, it’s not all doom and gloom,” she says. “There are specific things we can do in coffee, actions that growers can take now, for greater carbon sequestration in the soil. It’s just a question of how much carbon coffee growing systems are able to sequester and the economics of those options.

“WCR commissioned a paper by World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Rattan Lal which we released in October, that looks at the sequestration potential of coffee farming systems, and will follow this with a webinar in mid-November. This paper gives us a concrete idea of how sequestration could work.”

Rethinking our farming
The ability of biodiverse and biomass rich ecosystems to sequester carbon is one of several reasons to prevent deforestation around the world. Dr Davis says that coffee industry, and other food industries, needs to take greater accountability and transparency for the part they play in deforestation, and embrace the protection of the natural world.

“Agriculture is a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions and also a major cause of biodiversity loss. We need to stop burying our heads in the sand, and do our upmost to protect and enhance life-preserving natural systems,” Davis says.

“A farm can be located in an area that was deforested a decade or two ago, planted with a few shade trees, and then receive a biodiversity or forest stewardship certification. The result for carbon sequestration and biodiversity are profoundly negative. There are many good examples of action being taken by the coffee industry, including the proactive planting of trees at scale, and ensuring meaningful agroforestry production for their products. Other parts of the sector should follow such examples and learn from successes and failures.”

Davis says legislation in Europe and the United States will soon force major businesses to ensure their value chains are free from deforestation and biodiversity loss. The enforcement of legislation is becoming increasingly powerful with the aid of new technologies, such as satellite monitoring over decadal timescales, stable isotope analysis, and spectral chemical profiling, as now being used to monitor the global trade in timber. 

Davis and colleagues believe that the coffee crop portfolio will need to be broadened dramatically to include alternative species and inter-species hybrids, as climatic suitability worsens for Arabica and Robusta coffee.

“We have already identified and are developing species, other than Arabica and Robusta, that are not only substantially more climate resilient but also have the required attributes for the producer and the consumer,” Davis says. “Production of some of these coffees is already underway”.

Higher yielding and more adaptive coffee species and varieties not only help farmers adapt to climate change, but they can also reduce the need to deforest surrounding areas. WCR’s Long says new crop development is crucial for the future of coffee.

“When we look historically at what kinds of innovation have helped farmers adapt to weather and environments, new varieties are almost always at the centre of that. But they need to be involved in the process and the development of new varieties depends on partnerships with farmers,” Long says.

“WCR is launching a global breeding network, working closely with national coffee institutes around the world to mobilise the breeding community. We’ll be using genomic selection in this project, which allows you to choose multiple traits at once, such as heat tolerance, drought resistance, quality parameters, water use efficiency, or holding onto their flowers well in a downpour. It’s a next generation approach to breeding that all other major food security crops have taken on and while we’ve started a lot of the groundwork, we’re officially starting that program in 2022.” 

Consuming countries
When climate change is discussed in the coffee industry, it often is in regard to production, however, consuming countries are still affected and in many ways, are more responsible for the problem.

“This isn’t just a coffee issue, it’s a human issue. Consuming and industrialised countries are the primary sources of emissions, and we need to think systemically and mobilise public-private investment for emissions reduction,” Long says.

“Businesses can individually work to reduce their own emissions and everyone has to play their part, but there are systems in place that facilitate and privilege the use of fossil fuels, from tax and industry structures to how roads are built. We need to rethink how we use things, which we have started to do as a result of COVID and, hopefully, we can take those learnings and change the way we live and travel.”

Logistics and transportation are key issues impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which Long says will also need to be considered when adapting to climate change, with rising sea levels affecting port infrastructure and the ability to move products like coffee.

Dr Davis adds that shipping and other transportation are also major contributors to huge sources of GHG emissions. 

“Really, every sector and part of the industry contributes to and is impacted by climate change, and needs to be looked at critically,” Davis says. “The pandemic has been a sort of ‘trial run’ in terms of the impact on global supply chains, people will often say ‘if you think COVID was bad, wait ‘til climate change really kicks in’.”

Davis says the entire value chain is responsible for mitigating climate change, from the producer, through to the major buyers, who have a strong position and influence, and the end consumer who decides what kinds of products they will buy.

“We all need to think about how we can achieve decarbonisation,” he says. “More recently, there has been positive news that some major coffee producing countries are developing much stronger and more impactful measures to counter biodiversity loss and improve climate change mitigation, which is hugely encouraging.

“I think there is cause for optimism, but only if it’s matched with a proactive response. We can’t be optimistic and do nothing. That’s one of the powerful messages of the IPCC report: time is running out and we need to act now. If we can drastically reduce GHG emissions and continue coffee crop development, there is every reason for optimism.”

If we don’t, WCR’s Long warns the consequences will go beyond coffee.

“The ramifications of not taking immediate action are huge for everyone, on global trade, effectiveness of ports, and especially for producing countries making impossible choices in allocating limited resources. There are huge trade-offs between repairing infrastructure versus health systems versus education – moving coffee will not be a problem most are worried about, it will be saving lives,” Long says.

“Having no coffee to drink will be the last of our problems.”

This article was first published in the November/December 2021 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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