Fashioning a climate resilient cotton sector

Source(s): Acclimatise

By Charlene Collison and Ulrike Stein 

Why understanding the climate threat to cotton is essential for preparing a cross-sector response.

As the Cotton 2040 initiative publishes two new studies highlighting the potentially drastic impacts the climate crisis could have on cotton production in India and globally, Forum for the Future’s Charlene Collison and Ulrike Stein explore the urgent need for businesses to move beyond mitigation efforts and firmly shift their focus on adaptation measures in order to create a climate-resilient cotton sector.

The climate crisis will impact every detail of our lives, right down to the clothes we wear, the towels we use and the sheets we sleep on. The future of cotton, the world’s most widely produced natural fibre, will be affected, often dramatically, by changes in the climate.

Indeed, climate breakdown is arguably the biggest and most complex of the many pressing social and environmental challenges threatening the cotton sector’s future resilience. Rising temperatures, changes to water availability and extreme weather events are already affecting crop production around the world, while the sector itself of course also contributes to climate change.

However, most industry-wide conversations and plans don’t address the scale of change that the climate crisis will force upon the industry, and the world. Importantly, a key barrier has been the lack of information on the potential climate impacts on the cotton sector. The Cotton 2040 initiative aims to change this.

Tackling the information gap: two new studies

Cotton 2040 is a multi-stakeholder initiative facilitating the shift to a sustainable global cotton industry which:

  • is resilient in a changing climate;
  • uses business models that support sustainable production and livelihoods;
  • and where sustainably produced cotton is the norm. 

As part of its Planning for Climate Adaptation workstream, climate-risk specialists Acclimatise (part of Willis Tower Watson’s Climate and Resilience Hub) have conducted two unique new studies, using a worst-case climate scenario.

The reports have today been published alongside an interactive Climate Risk Explorer Tool. Armed with information, the industry is better placed to agree on priority areas for joined-up, informed and responsible action.

The world’s first Global Analysis of Climate Risks to cotton growing regions provides a high-level analysis of physical climate risks across all major global cotton-growing regions for the 2040s.

Key findings include that, by the 2040s, all global cotton-growing regions will be exposed to increased risk from at least one climate hazard, with half of all cotton-growing regions facing high or very high climate risk exposure to at least one climate hazard. All six highest cotton-producing countries – India, USA, China, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey – are exposed to increased climate risk, particularly from wildfire, drought and extreme rainfall. 

A Climate Risk and Vulnerability Assessment of cotton growing regions in India considered a total of 41 climate hazard, and socio-economic indicators to assess the risk to cotton cultivation as well as cotton processing in 13 districts across three of India’s major cotton-growing states: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana.

Key findings include that, by 2040, all cotton-growing regions across India will be subject to greater heat stress than under present-day conditions. The study also highlighted that common areas of vulnerability across all districts include multidimensional poverty, low female work participation rates, low male and female literacy rates, and limited access to banking services, technology and information.

The 12 climate indicators covered are: growing season length, heat stress, total rainfall during the growing season, extreme rainfall events, long-term drought, short-term drought, fluvial flooding, coastal flooding, strong winds, storms, wildfire and landslides.

What do these findings mean for the cotton sector?

Firstly, mitigation efforts alone just won’t be enough. The Net Zero commitments made by countries and some companies don’t stack up to what’s needed to keep global heating within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. A certain level of chronic and acute climate hazards is now baked in, and we must look beyond mitigation to adaptation.

Secondly, the environmental and social impacts of climate change are going to impact every single link in the cotton and wider textile value chain. And those who are already the most vulnerable, will be affected the most. Therefore, these impacts cannot be tackled in isolation.

Thirdly, resource scarcity or unequal distribution could potentially trigger societal disruption, possibly leading to conflict or even war. This will not only impact production, but also the transportation and distribution of goods. We cannot presume that current supply chains will continue as a viable or predictable part of the future.

How should the sector respond?

Preparing for the changes ahead requires a response that goes beyond incremental solutions to fundamental changes. The findings call for nothing less than a collective re-imagination of where, how and why cotton is produced, and transformation of the cotton value chain to be sustainable, resilient and just. This will require three key things:

1. Resetting ambition: looking beyond mitigation to also focus on adaptation

Organisations across the cotton value chain need to make bold commitments and take urgent action to decarbonise their organisations and supply chains through their mitigation plans, in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C. And at the same time, the focus needs to shift to also developing robust adaptation plans to be prepared for the effects of the climate crisis.

2. Ensuring just transitions: climate justice must be at the heart of the sector’s response

Investing in climate justice and socio-economic resilience is investing in climate resilience. Already vulnerable members and parts of the cotton value chain will come under even greater pressure and stress. The climate crisis will only add to the sector’s deeply entrenched environmental, social and economic challenges. For the around 350 million people whose livelihoods are linked to cotton growing and processing, and especially for the millions of smallholder farmers and their communities, the potential implications are tragic.

3. Building capacity for more systemic mindsets and joined-up thinking

A systemic threat requires systemic solutions. If we are to respond proportionately to the impacts of climate change, we must focus on more than changes in the weather. We need to find ways to build environmental and social resilience into supply chains, and also halt the downward spiral of the most vulnerable.

Building sector wide conversations on climate change adaptation and resilience

Navigating planning for these multiple potential futures – the one we must aim for through mitigation efforts, and the ones we must nonetheless be prepared for through adaptation planning – is the critical challenge that the cotton sector is facing.

The Cotton 2040 initiative urges people and organisations from across the cotton industry to use this data and analysis to think radically about the future of cotton. But we particularly call for the findings to be used as a resource to make decisions together about how the industry needs to work, from how cotton is produced, transported, and used; to strategies, business models, financing and more.

We invite you to join us on this mission.

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