Climate change and UK farming

What will climate change mean for growing crops in the UK?
21 January 2020

Interview with 

Professor Ian Bateman, University of Exeter




This week scientists confirmed that 2019 was the second hottest on record, worldwide, and that the last decade was the hottest for 150 years. It’s a trend likely to continue: researchers are already predicting that 2020 will be another record-breaker. But what’s happening in the UK, and what are the consequences for one thing our green and pleasant land is famous for: farming? According to a new report, for a while, climate change could be good for Britain’s agriculture, bringing warmer weather and the right amount of rain to grow high-value crops. But there’s a sting in the tail: if global temperatures rise by more than 3 degrees - which is entirely feasible - this could be enough to halt the Gulf Stream and make the weather take an abrupt turn for the worst. Chris Smith spoke to Ian Bateman, who authored the new study…

Ian - What we're showing is the effect of expected climate change and extreme climate change upon agriculture in Britain over about the next 60 years. As the climate warms, Britain will respond to that by being able to grow more than it did in the past. However, we show that if it warms too much, then actually there will be effects on what is commonly called the Gulf stream that keeps Britain warm, which actually will be quite negative for this country.

Chris - Let's look at the good news side of it first, the fact that you thought there might be an increased productivity. How did you make those assessments and appraisals?

Ian - First of all, we looked at farmers' behaviour over the whole area of the UK for about the last 60 years, and some years are really warm, and some years are pretty cold and you can see farmers responding to that. And because you now understand that relationship, you can then say, well, what will happen if the weather changes in a certain direction into the future?

Chris- And under those scenarios it shows that will at least stay the same or we could even see a slight increase in productivity?

Ian - Staying the same, I'm afraid, that's not an option anymore. Climate change is already proceeding so rapidly and you've seen that in the results announced just today actually, this is the warmest decade ever. The 19 years of this century to date are 19 of the 20 hottest years ever recorded. So what we're looking at is what will happen if climate change proceeds as expected and in a country like Britain, that means we will get warmer and in the growing season, drier conditions and that'll allow us to grow a lot of high value crops.

Chris - What about water though Ian, because this is very important for crop production and it's not that the whole country gets the same amount of water everywhere. How do we take that into account?

Ian - So even under what we might call standard climate change, you are going to get areas, particularly in the East of the country, which are going too get to dry for agriculture. Now we have sufficient water falling on the country as a whole to irrigate, so if we are prepared to invest in piping water across from the North and the West, which will still remain fairly wet, there will be enough water to irrigate. But what we show in the paper is that the costs of doing that will exceed the value of the extra crops. But one of the big things that we looked at in our paper is what if it's not standard climate change? What if instead it's more extreme? And that's where things get really bad, I'm afraid.

Chris- What do you call really extreme though?

Ian - Standard climate change, we're looking at anything up to, sort of, two degrees, hopefully not much more than that over say that the average person's lifetime here. In the extreme scenario, there is an effect on Britain, which is almost different to every other country in the world, and that's for a very specific reason. Britain is warmer than you would expect for a country that is so Northern in the world. So, you've got to realise Edinburgh is north of Moscow. This country should be really, really cold, but we're not because we benefit from what people call the Gulf Stream, that huge warm current awards that comes across the Atlantic from the Caribbean and keeps us relatively insulated from the cold North. Unfortunately, if climate change proceeds fast, what you're going to find is that the melting of the Arctic glaciers on Greenland is going to disturb that Gulf stream and push it south so that unfortunately all that hot water instead of coming up to us, it'll push straight across the Atlantic. The results for Britain then is that we go from getting warmer and warmer and warmer to suddenly by the time you get to three degrees getting colder. Scientists call it a tipping point. It'll be cold and dry.

Chris - Have you put any financial numbers on these numbers as in have you said, and if we then compute what the cost of this is, in terms of the return for the beneficial scenarios versus the really extreme scenarios, what's the economic cost of this?

Ian - Yeah, we have done that. When you're looking at the more extreme case, you're looking at values that aren't that far off about a third of the value of farm production. These are substantial figures. You've got to add on to that, which we haven't done, the fact that it's not just us that's going to be affected. We import a very large proportion of our food from abroad, but if the rest of the world is suffering actually worse consequences from climate change than us, in the extreme case, the world will be very challenged to feed itself. Adding that onto these consequences makes it a much more worrying situation.


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