In the last decade, United Nations refugee agency, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says weather-related crises have triggered more than twice as much displacement as conflict and violence.
The UN agency has published data showing how disasters linked to climate change likely worsen poverty, hunger and access to natural resources, stoking instability and violence. The data coincided with Earth Day on April 22.
Afghanistan to Central America, droughts, flooding, and other extreme weather events are hitting those least equipped to recover and adapt”, said the UN agency, which is calling for countries to work together to combat climate change and mitigate its impact on hundreds of millions of people.
Since 2010, weather emergencies have forced around 21.5 million people a year to move, on average.
UNHCR said that roughly 90 per cent of refugees come from countries that are the most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
These countries also host around 70 per cent of people internally displaced by conflict or violence.
Citing the case of Afghanistan, UNHCR noted that it is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, as nearly all of its 34 provinces have been hit by at least one disaster in the past 30 years.
The country is also ranked the least peaceful globally, owing to longstanding conflict that has killed and injured thousands of people and displaced millions.
Chronic floods, droughts
Recurring floods and droughts – along with population growth – have compounded food insecurity and water scarcity and reduced the prospects of refugees and IDPs being able to return to their home areas, UNHCR said.
It pointed to indications that 16.9 million Afghans – nearly half of the country’s population – lacked enough food in the first quarter of 2021, including at least 5.5 million facing emergency levels of food deprivation.
As of mid-2020, more than 2.6 million Afghans were internally displaced and another 2.7 million were living as registered refugees in other countries, mainly Pakistan and Iran, according to UNHCR.
Mozambique is experiencing a similar confluence of conflict and multiple disasters, says the agency, with one cyclone after another battering the country’s central region while increasing violence and turmoil to the north displaces hundreds of thousands of people.
Countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change are already host to large numbers of refugees and internally displaced.
In Bangladesh, more than 870,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violence in Myanmar are now exposed to increasingly frequent and intense cyclones and flooding.
“We need to invest now in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate caused displacement,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, earlier this year.
In a new joint UN report on climate action last September, the world heard that taking specific steps to transform national food supply systems can help countries achieve climate goals and limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius.
Enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions for Food Systems, published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), WWF, EAT, and Climate Focus, also reveals that nations are missing significant opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It also identifies sixteen ways policymakers could take more action, from farm to fork, to integrate food systems in their national climate strategies, that could also help improve food security.
According to the head of UNEP, while COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of food supply systems, the pandemic has also demonstrated that businesses and people are ready to build back better.
“This crisis offers us a chance to radically rethink how we produce and consume food”, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, said in a news release announcing the report’s findings.
“For example, reorienting consumption by halving food waste and catalyzing a shift towards more plant-rich diets, is also a powerful climate mitigation tool to take advantage of. It is up to us to seize this opportunity and put sustainable food systems at the heart of the green recovery,” she added.
Improvements by as much as 25 per cent
Currently, diets and food loss and waste are widely ignored in national climate plans, but by adding them, policymakers can improve their mitigation and adaptation contributions from food systems, by as much as 25 per cent, said UNEP.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, every five years, countries are expected to revise or resubmit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – steps that they will take to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
2020, therefore, presents policymakers with the opportunity to adopt food systems solutions and set more ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, in turn, improve biodiversity, food security and public health.
Food systems – which gather all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food – account for up to 37 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, offering plenty of space to improve.
Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF-International, called on governments to include climate and nature positive food systems approaches in revised and more ambitious NDCs submitted in 2020.
“Without action on how we produce and consume food, we cannot achieve our climate or biodiversity goals, which are the foundation to achieve food security, prevent the emergence of diseases and ultimately deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
Gunhild Stordalen, the Founder and Executive Chair of EAT – a non-profit organization that works towards catalyzing a global food system transformation – added that fixing food systems goes beyond supporting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement.
“Shifting to regenerative, carbon-absorbing production and adoption of healthy, predominantly plant-based diets that are affordable and accessible, as well as halving food waste and loss, are crucial actions that must be included in countries’ NDCs and integrated in their climate action plans with clear ambitions,” she said.
“As we enter the Decade of Action, let’s make it the decade of delivery for a healthy, sustainable and equitable food future for all”, adds Stordalen.
Action towards transformation
The 16 actions identified in the report include reducing land-use change and conversion of natural habitats, which could reduce emissions by some 4.6 gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide, or Gt CO2e, per year.
Comparably, reducing food loss and waste, which accounts for 8 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, could reduce emissions by 4.5 Gt CO2e per year. Similarly, improving production methods and reducing methane emissions from livestock, could reduce emissions by up to 1.44 Gt CO2e per year.
Much greater reductions could be achieved by shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets with a higher proportion of plant-based than animal-based foods could avoid emissions of up to 8 Gt CO2e each year. But, no current national climate plans explicitly discuss more sustainable diets.
“Eliminating excessive meat consumption, improving storage facilities and reducing food waste is good for our health and improves food security”, said Charlotte Streck, Co-founder and Director of Climate Focus, a think tank that provides advice on international climate policy to public and private actors across the globe.
“With a check-list and concrete examples of activities and targets, this report provides guidance for policymakers to integrate food systems in their national climate strategies”, she added.