Russia’s Agony a “Wake-Up Call” to the World

By Stephen Leahy

VIENNA, Aug 11, 2010 (IPS) – A wind turbine on an acre of northern Iowa farmland could generate 300,000 dollars worth of greenhouse-gas-free electricity a year. Instead, the U.S. government pays out billions of dollars to subsidise grain for ethanol fuel that has little if any impact on global warming, according to Lester Brown.
“The smartest thing the U.S. could do is phase out ethanol subsidies,” says Brown, the founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, in reference to rising food prices resulting from the unprecedented heat wave in western Russia that has decimated crops and killed at least 15,000 people.

“The lesson here is that we must take climate change far more seriously, make major cuts in emissions and fast before climate change is out of control,” Brown, one of the world’s leading experts on agriculture and food, told IPS.

Average temperatures during the month of July were eight degrees Celsius above normal in Moscow, he said, noting that “such a huge increase in temperature over an entire month is just unheard of.”

On Monday, Moscow reached 37 C when the normal temperature for August is 21 C. It was the 28th day in a row that temperatures exceeded 30 C.

Soil moisture has fallen to levels seen only once in 500 years, says Brown. Wheat and other grain yields are expected to decline by 40 percent or more in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – regions that provide 25 percent of the world’s wheat exports. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a few days ago that Russia would ban all grain exports.

Food prices will rise but how much is not known at this point, says Brown. “What we do know, however, is that the prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007-08 run-up in grain prices began.”

Emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2 from burning fossil fuels trap more of the sun’s energy. Climate experts expected the number and intensity of heat waves and droughts to increase as a result. In 2009, heat and fire killed hundreds in Australia during the worst drought in more than century, which devastated the country’s agriculture sector. In 2003, a European heat wave killed 53,000 people but as it occurred late in the summer crop, yields were not badly affected.

If a heat wave like Russia’s were centred around the grain- producing regions near Chicago or Beijing, the impacts could be many times worse because each of these regions produce five times the amount of grain as Russia does, says Brown. Such an event could result in the loss of 100 to 200 million tonnes of grain with unimaginable affects on the world’s food supply.

“Russia’s heat wave is a wake-up call to the world regarding the vulnerability of the global food supply,” he said.

The global climate is warming and most food crops are both heat and drought sensitive. Rice yield growth rates have already fallen by 10-20 percent over the last 25 years in parts of Thailand, Vietnam, India and China due to global warming, new research has shown. Data from 227 fully- irrigated farms that grow “green revolution” crops are suffering significant yield declines due to warming temperatures at night, researchers found.

“As nights get hotter, rice yields drop,” reported Jarrod Welch of the University of California at San Diego and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Aug. 9. Previous studies have shown this result in experimental plots, but this is the first under widespread, real-world conditions.

With such pressures on the world’s food supply it is simply wrong-headed to use 25 percent of U.S. grain for ethanol as a fuel for cars, said Brown.

“Ethanol subsidies must be phased out and real cuts in carbon emissions made and urgently,” he said.

2 thoughts on “Russia’s Agony a “Wake-Up Call” to the World

  1. I think the majority of scientists accept that the Russian heatwave was primarily caused by a natural blocking event enhanced by the greenhouse effect/global warming.
    Doesn’t bode well for the future though with increasing GHGs.

    On the subject of ethanol, the US is most definitely one of the worst locations to grow corn for ethanol production. The energy gain (ratio), after using fossil fuels to refine the stuff is slight and in the case of wheat (in the case of European ethanol production) it is practically zero or even negative.

    There maybe a case for Brazils ethanol production, because the location and crop (sugarcane) produce a bigger gain in embedded energy after refining.

  2. It helps to think of climate change is a kind of “force multiplier” as the military types like to say. Global warming is already part of our climate reality along with natural variability as climatologist Kevin Trenbreth National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado notes in reference to the Russian heatwave.

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