Climate change: Five billion people at risk within 30 years, experts warn

Haitians queue at a UN aid distribution site. Picture: Getty
Haitians queue at a UN aid distribution site. Picture: Getty
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Five billion people could be at greater risk of water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops due to climate change within 30 years, warns a new study.

Nature's ability to meet the needs of those who need it the most - such as people in coastal communities or reliant on farming - is dwindling, according to the research.

And poorer people shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden, suggest the findings published in the journal Science.

The research team set out to understand and map where nature contributes the most to people's lives, and how many people might be impacted by climate change and changes in the way fossil fuels are used.

They focussed on three areas in which nature is considered to be hugely beneficial to people - water quality regulation, protection from coastal hazards and crop pollination - and analysed how they might change using open-source software.

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People in Africa and South Asia were projected to be most disadvantaged by "diminishing contributions" from nature.

More than half the population in those regions is facing a significant increase in coastal storms, water pollution and crop losses.

Meanwhile more than 500 million people in coastal communities across the world are estimated to be put at severe risk by sea-level rise by 2050.

Study lead author Dr Becky Chaplin-Kramer, of Stanford University in the United States, said: "Thanks to rapid recent technological improvements, we're now able to map these local contributions from nature in a detailed, accessible way at a global scale.

"By applying this new technology, we are able to clearly see where people are receiving benefits from nature around the world.

"We also see where people are most likely to lose vital benefits as ecosystems degrade."

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Study co-author Unai Pascual, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, added: "Our analyses suggest that the current environmental governance at local, regional and international levels is failing to encourage the most vulnerable regions to invest in ecosystems.

"If we continue on this trajectory, ecosystems will be unable to provide natural insurance in the face of climate change-induced impacts on food, water and infrastructure."

The researchers hope that their findings will encourage governments to include nature into global policy.

They have created an online, interactive map which incorporates all the data from the study, which they hope policymakers, development banks and other global actors will use to drive sustainable development and conservation.

Co-author Dr Stephen Polasky, of the University of Minnesota, said: "Determining when and where nature is most important is critical to understanding how best to enhance people's livelihoods and well-being."

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to expand their analysis to model how other ecosystem benefits could diminish and impact vulnerable populations.

Dr Chaplin-Kramer added: "We hope that this work will advance the integration of nature's contributions to people into decision making and further galvanize global action.

"We're equipped with the information we need to avert the worst scenarios our models project and move toward an equitable, sustainable future. Now is the time to wield it."