Climate change

No escape from climate change, as Hong Kong's freak storms remind us

Wang Binbin says the recent freak weather in Hong Kong serves as a reminder that the effects of climate change are never far away and are already being felt, especially by the poor, in the form of rising food prices

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 7:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2014, 6:21am

Photos of Festival Walk have been doing the rounds recently as Hongkongers paused to marvel at the storm-battered mall that was turned, temporarily, into a waterfall-filled urban jungle as the city was pounded by golf-ball-sized hailstones. The shopping centre has since dried off, but we shouldn't get too comfortable: according to the Observatory's records, April has, in the past, averaged more instances of hail than March.

There is another reason why we shouldn't just dismiss this as a freak storm and go back to our daily lives. The falling hailstones were not merely a harbinger of a suspension in shopping activities; they were an indication of just how close the effects of climate change are to us.

The trend has, in fact, started taking its toll on food production and, by extension, food prices. We would do well to heed the signs, because soon the victims of extreme weather events will not be just a few flooded streets or malls, but the low-income families living among us who already struggle to put food on the table.

Last Monday, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the second instalment of its fifth assessment report. The document sounded a clear warning about the pervasive impact of climate change. Its release marks several firsts: it is the first time the IPCC has recognised that more extreme weather means more extreme food prices. It is the first time it has acknowledged that poor countries face a gap in the funding needed to adapt to climate change - to the tune of US$100 billion per year. Tellingly, it is also the first time the IPCC has included a chapter on livelihoods and poverty.

Some have said rising temperatures can help farmers grow crops better. This report flies in the face of such suggestions, showing that climate change has already affected food production, lowering wheat and maize yields. Harvests will continue to be affected in the future.

It's not just farming that will be hit. The weather phenomenon is also affecting the abundance of seafood. While this may improve production in some regions, it will negatively affect nutrition and food security for people who are particularly vulnerable, especially in various developing countries in the tropical region.

Water will also be affected. Climate change, the IPCC says, will probably significantly lower the availability of ground and renewable surface water resources in most dry subtropical regions. That means less fresh water to go round for people to use at home and for farming. For those who rely on cultivating crops for a living in these areas, this is particularly alarming.

For us, the report only confirms what we have known for years. In China, we have seen first-hand how the changing climate has affected everyone, from farmers to the inhabitants of remote rural villages.

More than 128 million people in mainland China continue to live below the national poverty line of 2,300 yuan (HK$2,900) per year. It's no surprise that the vast majority of them live in the most ecologically sensitive areas in the nation. Regular droughts and floods mean farmers there are finding it increasingly hard to cultivate their crops.

That's why, last month, Oxfam started a pilot project in Yujiashan village, Shaanxi province . The residents will seek to adapt to climate change by using low-carbon farming methods and drought-resistant crops. We will study the potential for such practices and the impact of climate change on biodiversity. In Gutu, Zimbabwe, we're already seeing the benefits of initiatives to adapt to climate change. A gravity-fed irrigation system has meant farmers there were able to produce higher yields. But we're also seeing the limitations of such measures. Low rainfall at one point left the farmers without water. When it returned at full blast, it sent boulders crashing into the pipeline, damaging it.

That there are limits is, unfortunately, not surprising. Human activity has already done significant damage to the climate. As the IPCC has shown, crops have biological temperatures beyond which they simply cannot grow. If we do not cut our greenhouse gas emissions now, by 2050 the food security risks in many countries will exceed our ability to adapt.

Anyone who thinks climate change will affect only farmers in Africa is mistaken. The fact is that the low-income population in Hong Kong is already feeling its effects. If we continue the way we are going, the impact is going to sting a lot more than being hit by a couple of hailstones.

In fact, the recent storms have already demonstrated the powerful effect similar weather events can have. The vegetables landing on your plate today are probably much more expensive because of flooding on the farms in southern China that supply our city. Vegetable wholesalers have reported an 8 per cent drop in supply and wholesale price rises of 15 per cent, and have predicted a jump at the retail end of up to 50 per cent. We predict food prices will approximately double by 2030, and there will be even more price spikes as a result of extreme weather events. Half of the twofold rise, we believe, can be blamed on climate change.

The IPCC report's authors say there have been several periods of marked price rises since 2007 after extreme weather events in major production regions, showing markets are sensitive to them.

In Hong Kong, food accounts for 41 per cent of the household expenditure for the lowest quartile of the population, double that of the highest quartile. It's not too hard to imagine what an increase in food prices would mean for these families.

Last year, the Hong Kong consumer price index for food rose 4.4 per cent compared with a year earlier. According to a survey of poor households with children that Oxfam conducted in 2011 - when the Food and Agriculture Organisation's food price index reached a record high - 46 per cent experienced food insecurity. Thankfully, food prices have come down since 2011, but we don't want to see what will happen when they go back up and continue rising.

As Tom Waits once sang, "A little rain never hurt no one." A little hail has so far hurt no one here. Let's hope that the global warming that is at its root doesn't hurt any more people than it already has, too.

Wang Binbin is manager of climate change and poverty at Oxfam Hong Kong