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Climate change: Power, food, water supplies to be hit hard

New Delhi : Even as the UN climate talks reached a decisive conclusion at Paris in December, several recent reports released across the world point towards the disruptions likely to be caused if things are left as they are.

While one set of calculation underline the fact, yet again, that climate change could threaten electricity supply around the world, another indicates how these changes could not only hit food availability and decrease access to food for the poor, but also lead to the food being just less nutritious.

Yet another warning, this time from China’s top scientific body, was also sounded on how increased human activities and climate change are turning much of the Tibetan plateau into a desert. The plateau, much of it is still grasslands and wetlands, is a major source of Asia’s major rivers and 1.4 billion people depend on these very waters for their survival.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists said climate change impacts and associated changes in water resources could lead to reductions in electricity production capacity for more than 60 per cent of the power plants worldwide from 2040-2069.

Yet, adaptation measures focused on making power plants more efficient and flexible could mitigate much of the decline.

"Hydropower plants and thermoelectric power plants—which are nuclear, fossil-, and biomass-fueled plants converting heat to electricity—both rely on freshwater from rivers and streams," explains Michelle Van Vliet, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who led the study.

"These power-generating technologies strongly depend on water availability and water temperature for cooling plays in addition a critical role for thermoelectric power generation."

Worldwide, as much as 98 per cent of electricity production comes from hydropower and thermoelectric power.

Calculations show that climate change will impact water resources availability as well as lead to an increase in water temperatures in many regions of the world.

IIASA Energy Program Director and co-author of the study Keywan Riahi said this was first such study to examine linkages between climate change, water resources and electricity production on a global scale.

"We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate," he says.

Particularly vulnerable, according to the study, are the United States, southern South America, southern Africa, central and southern Europe, Southeast Asia and southern Australia.

As declines in mean annual streamflow are projected combined with strong increases in water temperature under changing climate, the potential for both hydropower and thermoelectric power generation in these regions will reduce, warns Van Vliet.

Elsewhere, scientists came up with another alarmist conclusion: climate change is going to have a massive impact on food and food security in years to come in both direct and indirect ways.

A new report from the United States Department of Agriculture, which sought to identify the effects of climate change on the US and global food system, said that not only production of field crops is going to be hit, but managing livestock too would become more challenging.

It points towards the non-agriculture aspects of the global food system too. So, factors like the price of oil and impact of extreme weather events on roads, railways and oceans could hit food supplies, or make food dearer. For example, hurricanes could affect grain-carrying large container ships or extreme weather events like blizzards could throw trains and trucking business out of gear.

Even the costs of storing and processing food will rise as weather grows more extreme.

The report, in an interesting observation, points out that even nutrient deficiency would crop up due to climate change. "Nutritional quality of a number of staple foods is diminished by elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations.” At the same time, there could be a shift towards consumption of more processed foods that can stay fresh in a range of temperatures, but have health impacts.

Based on contributions from more than 100 scientists, a report published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences spells out how there is real threat to vital water supplies to large parts of Asia due to the rampant desertification of the Tibetan plateau, which it says is already warming twice as fast as the global average.

Scientists expect temperatures on the plateau to rise by up to 4.6°C by the end of this century. This could lead to faster rate of glacier shrinking, lakes expanding and river flows increasing, all signs of an intensifying water cycle.

While more water is flowing on the plateau, desertification is spreading and will continue to expand, they warned.

Called the 'third pole' of the world, the plateau holds the largest store of fresh water outside the Antarctic and Arctic. It is the source of 10 of Asia’s major rivers that support about 1.4 billion people downstream.

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