By Elisa Jiménez Alonso
Climate change is increasingly having an impact on our daily lives. While many might think of the impacts in terms of extreme and sudden weather events, many problems are creeping up on our society. Such is the issue with many popular consumer goods. We are used to seeing densely stocked shopping aisles full of food, beverages, clothing and much more. But without adaptation measures from the private sector, the landscape of consumer goods as we know it might change very quickly. In a recent episode of the “Material World” podcast, hosts Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp explore how climate change might affect the consumer universe and what that means for popular products.
Going to the supermarket and buying groceries feels very removed from the actual food production. Shelves are always stocked, and if a consumer in the UK wants to buy an avocado in January, they will easily find one. Agriculture and food production are very complicated because they create globally traded goods and shortages in one country can potentially have knock on effects all over the world.
That is also the case for coffee. Illy Caffé CEO Andrea Illy explains that in the short term, as global temperatures begin to rise, the areas where coffee can be grown will expand. This can be seen in California where coffee production is on the rise. In the long term, however, the total area suitable for coffee production will significantly decrease. Illy estimates that about 50% of suitable areas today will not be able to produce coffee by the end of the century. In some traditionally coffee producing countries stagnating yields and decreasing quality can already be observed today. Adaptation actions are necessary today to reduce the negative impacts as much as possible. Andrea Illy recommends three broad areas of action: adapting agricultural practices, diversifying cultivated plants, and migrating plantations to more suitable areas. These will require enormous resources in terms of investments, knowledge, infrastructure, and people.
Cotton is another plant that is sensitive to a changing climate. While increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere boost cotton’s growth, the growth boost also leads to increasing water and nutrient needs. With rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, water availability is set to fall in many regions. The devastating 2011 drought alone led to the abandonment of 55% of Texas’ cotton fields and an estimated loss of US$2.2 billion. Major fashion companies like H&M are starting to look into changing how they source cotton and other textiles. With all signs pointing towards a significant reduction of global cotton production, H&M have pledged to use 100% sustainably sourced or recycled materials by 2030, in 2016 the share was 26%.
While the private sector’s efforts to adapt to climate change are absolutely crucial for global resilience building, governments also have an important role to play. In the first half of the 20th century, the US experienced a devastating drought that led and unsustainable farming practices led to the so called “Dust Bowl” in the Great Plains. The government then rolled out massive efforts to conserve soil and restore destroyed lands. One such effort consisted of planting a huge belt of 200 million trees from the Canadian border to central Texas. Without interventions and support from the public and private sectors, adaptation efforts and climate resilience building will only be partially successful.