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Royal Botanic Garden Kew finds urgent action needed to protect Ethiopia’s coffee production

From the July 2017 issue.

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and collaborators in Ethiopia have published a new study on the impact of climate change on coffee farming in Ethiopia.

The research, conducted over a three-year period, investigated the potential for building a climate resilient coffee economy for Ethiopia amid the county’s rapidly increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall.

“We found that a ‘business as usual’ approach could be disastrous for the Ethiopian coffee economy in the long-term. Timely, precise, science-based decision making is required now and over the coming decades, to ensure sustainability and resilience for the Ethiopian coffee sector,” says Justin Moat, Co-leader of the study at Kew Gardens. 

The new study used detailed computer modelling developed by the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), and high resolution satellite imagery (more than 800 million pixels) to map the coffee growing landscape of Ethiopia. The study also combined more than 2000 computer simulations to project changes in climatic suitability for coffee under different climate change scenarios until the end of this century.

The model projections produced showed that it will be necessary to move coffee upwards (in altitude) by 32 metres per decade to keep pace with climate change. The best overall conditions for coffee farming in Ethiopia are projected for the period 2010 to 2039, when Ethiopia has a potential coffee growing area of around 66,000 square kilometres.

The research paper, called Resilience potential of the Ethiopian coffee sector under climate change, shows that an increase in temperature of around 4°C by the end of this century could lead to a 39 to 59 per cent decrease in the current coffee-growing area of Ethiopia, if no interventions are made.

Conversely, relocation of coffee-growing areas could potentially result in a four-fold increase in the coffee farming area within Ethiopia, even under climate change. This would require a major shift in the coffee growing landscape, mostly to higher altitudes, as temperatures continue to increase. The annual temperature of Ethiopia is projected to increase by 1.1 to 3.1˚C by the 2060s, and 1.5 to 5.1˚C by the 2090s. This would be the equivalent of moving from London to the South of France.

Considerable numbers of farmers would also need to diversify away from coffee, while others would need to take up coffee growing for the first time.

Generally, those areas that are currently marginal for coffee farming will decline first, although some areas that are highly suitable today are projected to decline more rapidly than expected. Some areas will have in-built climate resilience, mainly due to their current suitability and geographical position. The research provides climate change projections for each of Ethiopia’s 16 main coffee growing areas. However, regardless of intervention measures, one of Ethiopia’s best-known coffee growing origins, Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, is likely to disappear before the end of the century.

“On the basis of the study we now have a clear vision of what needs to be done to make the Ethiopian coffee sector climate resilient, at least until the end of this century. The sector has the potential to increase production, even under climate change. In the longer term, however, the only truly sustainable solution is to combat the root causes of climate change,” says Dr Aaron Davis of RBG Kew, Co-leader of the research.

Ethiopia is the world’s fifth largest coffee producer, and Africa’s main exporter that provides livelihoods for around 15 million Ethiopians.

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