In the second installment of “Climate change 101” Carolien Samson, head of sustainable banking at Oxbury Bank Limited, considers how farming can both contribute to the greenhouse effect and mitigate the impact. She also unpacks climate adaptation and how farmers in SA and other countries are adopting a range of strategies.
Based on changes in weather conditions and complex climate models we can predict some of the impacts of climate change in Southern Africa. These will include events like more and longer-lasting droughts in certain parts of the continent, high variability in rainfall, more heatwaves and fire-danger days, unpredictable outbreaks of diseases as well as lower crop yields and animal productivity.
Higher average temperatures may allow parasites to thrive in new areas carrying diseases to animals and plants in unexpected ways.
An area may still get the same volume of rain per year, but it may arrive at different times and quantities which could result in existing infrastructure being unable to cope, like the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal.
The recent heatwaves in Europe highlighted the risks that more poultry and animals could be at risk from both heat exposure and fire risk. Dairy animals produce less milk in extreme heat, and poultry losses due to overheating in chicken houses are a real concern.
It is important to understand that the severity of these changes depend on the actual increase in the global average temperature. The lower that overall increase remain, the more manageable these changes will be.
A planet where the average temperature increases by less than 2 degrees centigrade has very different outcomes compared to a temperature increase of 4 degrees centigrade by the end of this century.
So, what could farmers do the prepare for these conditions?
How could these changes affect farmers?
Physical changes will be visible – either as specific events like a flood or a drought, or chronic like long-term changes in weather patterns. The recent floods in Pakistan and ongoing drought in the Eastern Cape are examples of specific events.
While the majority of physical impacts are expected to be negative, there may be some positive changes in certain areas.
Vineyards are appearing all over the southeast of England as warmer temperatures allow the grapes to ripen fully, attracting investors from France where traditional wine growing areas may become too warm for some grape varieties.
There are also so-called transition risks while the world adapts to warmer temperatures and, hopefully, adopts a lower carbon economy. These may affect farmers when legislation or consumer demand change.
For example, in the United Kingdom legislation was passed that requires the country to reach net zero by 2050 which has resulted in large retailers developing their own plans. Many of these will require farmers who sell produce to them to calculate their carbon emissions and develop farm-based net zero plans.
A citrus farmer in South Africa exporting fruit to Europe will soon have to take into account not only phytosanitary requirements, but also consider carbon emissions in production and transport of the fruit.
What is climate change mitigation?
Climate change mitigation refers to actions that reduce or prevent the emission of greenhouse gases and include methods to remove these from the atmosphere.
Agriculture and forestry present opportunities to both reduce and remove greenhouse gases which creates various options for farmers.
Many South African farmers started emissions reduction activities inadvertently as a side-effect of the increase in electricity costs and load shedding. Solar panels, wind turbines and heat pumps used on farms as well as biogas projects are all examples of climate mitigation actions.
Many South African farmers have also invested in precision agriculture technology, soil tests and fertiliser plans to reduce their use of chemicals and diesel in an effort to lower input costs. These also contribute to lower nitrogen and carbon emissions thus acting as mitigation actions.
Another example of emissions mitigation is reducing food waste and post-harvest losses, a great positive example recently profiled is ColdHubs from Nigeria.
Switching to electric vehicles should reduce emissions, but that only makes sense in a country where electricity is not coal-generated and a farmer may charge his electric tractor or truck with renewable energy.
A definite option for a farmer in the United Kingdom, but still a way off for farmers in South Africa, to contribute to lower emissions.
The ability of farmers to capture and store carbon in soils and plants is expected to play an important role in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Soil carbon is a whole topic on its own that I will cover in another article.
What is climate adaptation?
Climate adaptation is needed to enable people to live with the effects of climate change. It involves any action that protects a community or ecosystem while building long-term resilience to changes in environmental circumstances.
Farmers will have to adopt a range of adaptation strategies depending on their activities and location. Fortunately, farmers have a long history of adapting to changing climate, regulatory and market conditions that will assist them at this moment.
Some international examples include farmers in the Champagne region in France researching new grape varieties that can withstand higher temperatures and disease to be able to continue to produce their iconic wines.
The recent heatwave in the United Kingdom kindled interest in the ability of trees in or near fields to shade herds from the high temperatures.
Animal genetics may also be an important adaptation mechanism as farmers breed for more resilient animals with traits of heat tolerance potentially including older, indigenous breeds better suited to warmer conditions.
The drought in the Western Cape resulted in farmers developing techniques to cover dams and canals to reduce evaporation in future years (some are installing solar panels on these covers) and removing invasive plants to improve water availability.
In general, farmers will have to prepare for frequent and potentially longer droughts and therefore investments in water storage and capture will be an important element of climate adaptation.
In some areas farmers will also have to deal with too much rain and flood management will have to be planned.
Soil organic matter will also play an important role in climate adaptation as the presence thereof supports water retention and thus the ability of crops to withstand periods of low rainfall.
In the next installment, I’ll discuss the concepts of net zero and carbon neutral, positive and negative.
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