Climate crisis threatens British cup of tea as rising temperatures hit top growing countries

Erratic rainfall patterns caused by global warming could lead to flooding and drought in key exporter nations like Kenya, China, India and Sri Lanka

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Monday 10 May 2021 13:08
<p>The UK and Ireland drink more cups of tea than anywhere else in the world</p>

The UK and Ireland drink more cups of tea than anywhere else in the world

The great British cup of tea, so vital for holding together body and soul in these trying times, could be in peril from the climate crisis as rising temperatures in countries that grow the leaves place future crop yields in jeopardy.

A report by Christian Aid reveals that Kenya, the world’s biggest exporter of black tea, is suffering more erratic patterns of rainfall as a result of global warming, meaning that the increased risk of flooding and drought could pose a threat to planting schedules.

Kenya currently produces around half the black tea drunk in the UK, which, along with Ireland, consumes more cups than anywhere else in the world.

The research suggests climate change will slash the amount of time in which optimal growing conditions for tea production prevail in Kenya by 26 per cent by 2050. Areas with only average growing conditions will meanwhile see production fall by 39 per cent by the century’s midway point.

Other major tea-producing countries including India, Sri Lanka and China - the world’s largest grower of green tea, which is steadily becoming more popular in the UK - also face rising temperatures and more extreme and unreliable weather events, according to the report.

Changing climate also threatens to have an impact on the taste of tea, as increasing amounts of rain water produces inferior quality leaves and dilutes the compounds that make the brew beneficial to health.

Britain’s leading tea brands and the Fairtrade Foundation have also raised concerns about the impact climate change is having on tea growers and the future of production.

The warning comes as the UK prepares to host the G7 meeting of major economies next month - where Boris Johnson has said climate, and finance for poor countries to cope with global warming, will be centre stage - ahead of key UN Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow in November.

“This year the UK government has a key role in overseeing the global response to the climate emergency,” said Dr Kat Kramer, Christian Aid’s climate policy lead.

“As host of both the G7 in June and the Cop26 climate summit in November, the UK can ensure that countries on the frontline of this crisis can adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change.

“With countries starting to announce improved climate plans, there is a unique opportunity to accelerate cuts in emissions and boost the finance needed to help countries adapt to the changing climate.”

Fiachra Moloney, of PG Tips-maker Unilever, said: “The climate crisis affects people all over the world.

“In East Africa, where so much of our tea comes from, climate change is putting the livelihoods of the people who grow tea for us at risk.

“As Unilever, we call on governments to bring forward ambitious climate targets, policies and plans ahead of Cop26 that will help us all work together to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5C.”

A farm worker harvests tea leaves using shears at a plantation in Kenya's Kericho highlands

Under the 2016 Paris accord, countries have committed to action to try to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels because, beyond that level, climate impacts will become increasingly severe as the decades advance.

During last month’s virtual gathering of world leaders for Earth Day 2021, the UK pledged to reduce its emissions by 78 per cent from 1990 levels by 2035, with Canada, Japan and South Africa making similar commitments and the US announcing a new target of a 50-52 per cent reduction target from 2005 levels by 2030 but no such promises were forthcoming from some of the world’s biggest polluters, notably China, India and Russia.

Richard Koskei, 72, a tea farmer from Kericho in Kenya’s Western Highlands, said of the potential impact on his livelihood if trends continue: “We are proud that the tea that we grow here is the best in the world but climate change poses a real threat to us.

“We cannot predict seasons anymore, temperatures are rising, rainfall is more erratic, more often accompanied by unusual hailstones and longer droughts which was not the case in the past.

“If this continues then it will make growing tea much harder and life for us extremely difficult.”

He added: “Farmers like us are bearing the brunt of this crisis but we aren’t the ones that have caused it.”

“We small-scale farmers cannot fix this problem ourselves. This needs a joint effort from developed countries who enjoy our tea abroad,” he urged, as he called on richer countries to cut their emissions.

Additional reporting by agencies

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