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Half of all cotton growing regions face severe climate risks by 2040 if carbon emissions continue to soar

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Topics: Agriculture Environmental Liability Parametrics Risk Modelling

First of its kind global analysis of climate risks to cotton production published...

  • By 2040, half of the world’s cotton growing regions will face drastic exposure to high temperatures, changes to water availability, and extreme weather events if carbon emissions stay high
  • Cotton 2040 initiative calls on industry actors to take urgent, interlinked action on climate adaptation as well as mitigation, with climate justice at the core.

The first ever global analysis of climate risks to global cotton production reveals that runaway climate change could expose half of all global cotton growing regions to high risks from temperature increases, changes to rainfall patterns and extreme weather events by 2040. Titled “Adapting to climate change - physical risk assessment for global cotton production”, the analysis was commissioned by the Cotton 2040 initiative, which is facilitated by international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future and supported by Laudes Foundation. The analysis was conducted by Cotton 2040 partner and climate-risk specialists Acclimatise, part of Willis Towers Watson’s Climate and Resilience Hub.

Under a worst-case climate scenario, the analysis highlights that all global cotton growing regions will be exposed to increased risk from at least one climate hazard by 2040. While this increase ranges from very low to very high risk, half of the world’s cotton growing regions will face drastic changes with high or very high-risk exposure to at least one climate hazard.

Other key findings include:

  • All six highest cotton-producing countries – India, USA, China, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey – are exposed to increased climate risk, particularly from wildfire, drought and extreme rainfall.
  • The highest climate risk overall is projected for two regions of the world; northwestern Africa, including northern Sudan and Egypt, and western and southern Asia.
  • Some regions are set to face high or very high exposure to up to seven climate hazards
  • Cotton exposure to heat stress (defined as temperatures above 40°C) will be an increased risk across 75% of cotton growing regions, with the risk being high or very high across <5% of regions.
  • 40% of global cotton growing regions are projected to experience a decrease in growing season as temperatures increase beyond the optimum temperature range for cotton growing.
  • Water scarcity and extremes in rainfall, from insufficient in some regions to extreme and more intense in others, will present increased risk for the world’s most productive cotton growing regions. This will add extra pressure to a fibre already under scrutiny for its water footprint, affecting yields and potentially threatening to cause conflict and societal unrest.
  • Exposure to increased risk from drought will impact ~50% of cotton.
  • 20% of the world’s cotton growing regions will be exposed to increased risk from fluvial flooding by 2040, and 30% of cotton growing regions will be exposed to increased risk from landslides.
  • All cotton growing regions will be exposed to increased risk from wildfires.
  • 60% of cotton will be exposed to increased risk from damaging wind speeds, and up to 10% will be exposed to increased risk from storms.

Sally Uren, Chief Executive, Forum for the Future, said: “This analysis is a wake-up call for the cotton industry, on which much of the apparel sector is currently hugely reliant. In order to build resilience for a highly disrupted and uncertain future, the widespread shifts to sustainable forms of cotton production must be bolstered by ambitious and aligned action to reduce carbon emissions while also preparing the industry to operate in a very different world.”

However successful we are with decarbonisation, we will face decades of unavoidable climate change and disruption. Preparing today is essential if we are to limit the impacts of climate change on society.”

Alastair Baglee | Director, Corporates - Climate & Resilience Hub, Willis Towers Watson.

Alastair Baglee, Director, Corporates - Climate & Resilience Hub, Willis Towers Watson, said: “As it stands, emission reduction commitments and targets are being missed by the majority of countries, meaning that warming of more than 3°C is probable by the end of this century. However successful we are with decarbonisation, we will face decades of unavoidable climate change and disruption. Preparing today is essential if we are to limit the impacts of climate change on society.”

“Climate change impacts not just cotton but also the inter-connected agriculture system and related supply chains. In order to mitigate these risks, we need to catalyse sector-wide dialogue for proactive changes. Our partnership with Cotton 2040 accelerates this opportunity”, said Anita Chester, Head of Materials, Laudes Foundation.

Cotton has a market worth of about $12 bn1, makes up about 31% of all raw material used in the global textile market with a yearly economic impact of over $600 billion2 and supports the livelihoods of around 350 million who cultivate or process cotton. Approximately 90% of farmers grow cotton on less than 2 hectares (ha) of land and are located in developing countries, mainly in Central and West Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa3.

The global analysis is complemented by an in-depth analysis of physical climate risks and socio-economic vulnerabilities to the cotton value chain in India. This highlights that climate impacts extend beyond direct impacts to cotton production, affecting the entire value chain, including workers involved in harvesting and processing, as well as supply chains.

Allan Williams, General Manager for R&D Investment at the Australian Cotton Research & Development Corporation, said: “Cotton growers around the globe are already feeling the impacts of climate change, with direct effects on cotton production, and knock-on effects for the wider cotton value chain. For many, the future looks uncertain. Creating a cotton sector in which people and planet can thrive will require collective, responsible action to drive climate adaptation. But it must happen in a way that ensures that cotton producers and their communities don’t get left behind.”

Phil Townsend, Senior Technical Manager - Environmental Sustainability, Primark, said: “Primark is working hard to scale up its Sustainable Cotton Programme and to accelerate decarbonisation across our supply chain. However, we recognise we need to work with the industry to drive collective action on climate adaptation – while ensuring that cotton producers and their communities don’t get left behind. The new data from Cotton 2040 helps us all to understand the climate risks to our supply chains and develop responsible responses.”

“Investing in climate justice and socio-economic resilience must be at the heart of the cotton sector’s efforts”, said Dr Uren. “Now is the time to proactively plant the seeds for the deep transformation needed to stay below 1.5°C and deliver a just, regenerative and resilient global cotton industry.”

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