Major challenges ahead
Climate change is likely to worsen the disadvantages suffered by rural and regional communities, a recent Climate Council of Australia report reveals. On the Frontline: Climate Change & Rural Communities finds the increase in extreme weather events is disproportionately affecting those in rural areas, causing serious social, health and economic impacts.
Direct effects such as crop productivity are relatively straightforward to quantify, but indirect impacts including changes to the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases, altered seasonality and work schedules, and pressures on the agricultural workforce are more complex.
Global warming is predicted to result in an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves. Most crops are dependent on rainfall, and rice yields in particular can be reduced during drought.
Higher temperatures and less rainfall from climate change are predicted to have a devastating effect on South Australia’s red wine growing regions. The report estimates that 70 per cent of Australia’s wine-growing regions with a Mediterranean climate will be less suitable for grape growing by 2050.
The yield and quality of Australian stone fruit is also predicted to diminish, while an increased number of tropical cyclones will threaten the supply of northern crops, such as bananas. Higher average temperatures and reduced rainfall will also make growing vegetables much more difficult.
The challenges of global warming will be worsened by the likelihood of fewer farmers to help rural communities deal with the problem. In 2011, there were nearly 20,000 fewer farmers in Australia than in 2006. Over the 30 years to 2011, the number of farmers declined by 106,200 (40 per cent).
KEY FINDINGS 1. Rural and regional communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change
Climate change is worsening extreme events such as bushfires and drought, and rural and regional communities will continue to be disproportionately affected. Many agricultural businesses surveyed have used financial reserves – or increased debt – due to extreme weather events. Australia’s agricultural sector is showing signs of decreasing capacity and faltering productivity gains, and the resilience of some industries is under threat.
2. The systemic disadvantages experienced by rural and regional communities over those in urban areas are likely to worsen if climate change continues unabated
Rural and regional communities have already seen a significant reduction in population that has prompted further losses in services and unemployment. Climate change will further exacerbate these stresses. Strong action is required to protect rural and regional communities from worsening impacts.
3. Rural and regional communities are already adapting to the impacts of climate change, but there are limits and costs
Adaptation to cope with a changing climate may be relatively incremental, such as changing sowing and harvesting dates, or switching to new breeds of livestock or varieties of crops. More substantial adaptation options may involve changing production systems from cropping to grazing, or relocating to more suitable areas. The more transformational adaptive changes may be risky and expensive, especially for individual farmers. As climate continues to change, adaptation will become increasingly challenging.
4. While rural and regional communities are on the frontline of climate change impacts, tackling climate change also provides these communities with many opportunities
In Australia, rural areas receive around 30-40 per cent of the total investment in renewables, valued at $1-2 billion per year. Renewable energy projects bring jobs and investment into rural and regional communities. Delivering half of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050 would create more than 28,000 jobs. The transition to clean energy will also reduce the health burden of burning coal – almost entirely borne by rural and regional areas. Farmers can build the climate resilience of their farms via additional revenue streams, such as hosting wind turbines and other renewable energy projects. In Australia, approximately $20.6 million is paid annually in lease payments to farmers and landholders hosting wind turbines. Community funds and additional rate revenue for rural and regional areas from renewable energy can be used to improve public services and local infrastructure. Renewable energy can reduce electricity costs for rural and remote communities, which traditionally pay much more than urban counterparts. It also offers independence from the grid – several towns are racing to be the first to operate on 100 per cent renewable energy.
LEFT: Rainfall deciles for April to September 1997-2013 show the deep south of Australia observing record low levels of rainfall, and the top end receiving record highs (Source: BoM)
RIGHT: Mean temperatures have increased in Australia between 1910 and 2013. (Source: BoM)