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SREX: Lessons for the agricultural sector

The Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) was commissioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in response to a recognised need to provide specific advice on climate change, extreme weather and climate events (‘climate extremes’). The SREX report was written over two and a half years, compiled by 220 expert authors, 19 review editors and taking account of almost 19,000 comments. It went through three rigorous drafting processes with expert and government review. The findings were approved by the world’s governments following a four-day meeting, where the Summary for Policy Makers was agreed. It thus provides the most complete scientific assessment available to date and describes the immediate and long-term action required to manage the risks we face. It comprises a policy summary released in November 2011 and the full report released in March 2012 (available online at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/srex).

This thematic brief summarises the key findings of the report relevant to the agricultural sector. It draws exclusively on material from SREX. It includes an assessment of the science and the implications for society and sustainable development. It is intended to be useful for policy makers, decision takers and planners locally, nationally and regionally. In recognition that these readers will have many competing calls on both their time and budgets, this brief seeks to highlight key thematic findings and learning from SREX. It makes suggestions for immediate action to avoid further damage and to build a more resilient future with benefits that go beyond agriculture.

Although not an official publication of the IPCC, this summary has been written under the supervision of co-authors of the SREX report and it has been thoroughly reviewed by an expert panel. The summary includes material directly taken from the SREX report, where the underlying source is clearly referenced, but it also presents synthesis messages that are the views of the authors of this summary and not necessarily those of the IPCC. It is hoped that the result will illuminate the SREX report’s vital findings for decision makers working on agriculture issues, and so better equip them to make sound decisions about managing disaster risk in this context. This brief is one of four thematic briefs of the SREX report – on water, health, agriculture and ecosystems – that can be read individually or as a suite. There are also three regional SREX summaries for Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, which provide further information as a rapid reference source.

SREX considered the effects of climate change on extreme events, disasters, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk management (DRM). It examined how climate extremes, human factors and the environment interact to influence disaster impacts and risk management and adaptation options. The report considered the role of development in exposure and vulnerability, the implications for disaster risk and DRM, and the interactions between extreme events, extreme impacts, and development. It examined how human responses to extreme events and disasters could contribute to adaptation objectives, and how adaptation to climate change could become better integrated with DRM practice. The report represents a significant step forward for the integration and harmonisation of the climate change adaptation, disaster risk management, and climate science communities.

For agriculture sector policy-makers and planners, or indeed anyone whose work contributes to agricultural development, this brief should prompt discussion and understanding of several questions:

1) Why are extreme events a critical issue for agricultural development?

2) How is the agriculture sector affected by the risk and impact of extreme events?

3) What actions can be taken to manage these risks?

What does the SREX report mean for the agriculture sector?

A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent and duration of weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extremes, both through slow onset disasters (e.g. consecutive years of drought) and extreme events (e.g. heavy flooding). Many such events will have a direct impact on agricultural systems now and in the future, including through increased length, frequency and/or intensity of heatwaves, increased frequency of heavy precipitation in many regions, intensified droughts across some areas, upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels, and changes in flood patterns. Crops, livestock and people will all be affected.

The agricultural sector is amongst those sectors most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and weather extremes, not least because of its dependence upon natural resources such as water and ecosystem services. Water supply for agricultural production, for example, will be critical to sustain production and even more important to provide the increase in food production required to sustain the world’s growing population.

Transformational approaches are required in the management of natural resources, including new climate-smart agriculture policies, practices and tools, better use of climate science information in assessing risks and vulnerability, and increased financing for food security. Planners and policy makers have a key role to play in creating a conducive policy environment and securing financing for such transformation.

“Low regrets” adaptation options typically include improvements to coping strategies (i.e. strategies to overcome adverse conditions and restore basic functionality in the short to medium term) or reductions in exposure to known future threats, such as better forecasting and warning systems and the use of climate information to better manage agriculture in drought-prone regions. Other short-term adaptation strategies include diversifying livelihoods to spread risk, farming in different ecological niches, and risk pooling at the regional or national level to reduce financial exposure. Longer-term strategies include land rehabilitation, terracing and reforestation, measures to enhance water catchment and irrigation techniques, and the introduction of drought-resistant crop varieties.

In moving forwards there is a need for new and better disaster risk assessments that take climate change into account, which may require countries and people to reassess their thinking on what levels of risk they are willing and able to accept. It will also be important to strengthen new and existing partnerships for reducing risk, for example by including the private sector and bilateral and multilateral agencies in decision-making and risk management processes. Furthermore, given the critical links between agriculture and other sectors such as water and infrastructure, it will be important to highlight changing climate-related disaster risks to policy makers working in other policy domains.

Finally, there must be consideration that in some cases today’s climate extremes will be tomorrow’s “normal” weather. Tomorrow’s climate extremes may therefore stretch our imagination and challenge our capacity to manage change as never before.

To read the entire CDKN report Managing Climate Extremes and Disasters in the agricultural sector: Lessons from the IPCC SREX Report please  download at right of this page.