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Industry and agriculture

How is climate change influencing the distribution of different farming types?

Why is climate change boosting quaternary employment in the UK? Why might global warming bring changes to the location of industry in the UK? How are UK TNCs responding to the challenge of climate change?

Changing patterns of British agriculture

Patterns of agricultural land use are primarily determined by physical constraints: soil, climate, relief and aspect. On a global scale, climate is the key determinant. Especially important are precipitation levels (annual levels and seasonal variability) and length of the thermal growing season. In Europe, for instance, the climatic margins of cultivatable land are found at around 60 degrees North. Beyond this limit, even very extensive forms of cereal farming or animal husbandry become mostly impractical.

Local factors such as relief, aspect, soils and parent material - as well as the degree of continentality - may additionally determine exactly where productive land reaches its natural limit. For instance, the warming effect of the Gulf Stream mean that agriculture is possible in higher latitudes along the seaboards of western Europe than it is further inland.

Physical factors are not the only influences on patterns of agricultural land use, of course. Systems of land tenure, inheritance laws, accessibility, market preferences and government subsidies (along with other forms of support or interference) can all play a role.

How is climate change influencing the distribution of different farming types?

Looking at the national pattern of farming, the Department of the Environment anticipates a general northward and westward shift in the location of crop types currently grown in the UK. This reflects an emerging trend of drier summers in southern and eastern parts of the country as climate begins to change.

A spread of novel crops such as soya, sunflower and grain maize can be expected, along with greater success for viticulture (wine growing). There are already over 400 commercial wine-producers in the UK and many, such as Yearlstone Vineyard in Devon, reported record yields during 2006. In the event of significant warming in excess of 2C, even olive growing could become a profitable business.

More general impacts on agriculture could include:

  • Increase in some crop yields with further rises in atmospheric CO2

  • Increase in soil erosion on lighter soils during more frequent heavy precipitation events

  • Increase in demand for irrigation especially for horticulture in southern counties

  • Change in timing of farm operations, e.g. cultivations, spraying and harvesting

  • Increase in incidence of some agricultural pests and diseases

Climate changes will bring challenges and new opportunities to the farming community. Whether the net profitability of the sector increases or decreases remains to be seen. For instance, warmer temperatures may increase yields in potato growing regions in Pembrokeshire. However, increased temperature and a longer growing season would also cause changes in the water balance of the region, resulting in predicted falls of 5-10% in wheat yields.

Student Practice Question:

Examine the factors responsible for changing patterns of agricultural land use in the UK.

In addition to economic factors, such as EU subsidies or changing consumer demand, a good answer might also consider the physical challenges and opportunities that climate change is bringing for different types of farming activity and the impact on distribution that this could have.

Quaternary employment in the UK

The Quaternary sector of employment describes research work and the creation of new information. Sometimes described as the knowledge economy, it includes laboratory science (e.g. computing and biotechnology), creative industries (computer software, animation, new media and brand creation) and areas of finance where success depends upon the continual development of new ideas. Significant numbers of quaternary workers are actually military personnel or work within the arms industry.

Quaternary employment in the UK has become increasingly significant in recent decades. As many as 10-15% of the working population now belong to this sector, although it is often hard to distinguish between quaternary and tertiary sector work, especially in the fields of health, entertainment and education (e.g. many university lecturers also carry out research).

The growth of the quaternary sector has been driven by firms investing in larger research departments to help develop new products more quickly for saturated markets (constant innovation in mobile phone technology is a good example of this). The expansion of universities and higher education has also been a major influence, driven by government recognition that a high-skilled workforce is vital for the UK’s continuing economic success (we are still the 5th largest economy in the world). With manufacturing jobs moving overseas as part of a global shift in employment opportunities, the tertiary and quaternary sectors are now the major providers of employment in the UK.

Why is climate change boosting quaternary employment in the UK?

In 2004, Tony Blair spoke about the business opportunities brought by climate change. He argued that "the potential for innovation, for scientific discovery and hence, of course, for business investment and growth, is enormous. With the right framework for action, the very act of solving it can unleash a new and benign commercial force to take the action forward, providing jobs, technology spin-offs and new business opportunities as well as protecting the world we live in".

The Stern Review (2006) recommends that here in the UK we must act to boost the effectiveness of investments in innovation around the world, suggesting that “globally, support for energy R&D should at least double, and support for the deployment of new low-carbon technologies should increase up to five-fold.”

The power sector around the world will need to be at least 60% decarbonised by 2050 for atmospheric concentrations to stabilise at or below the critical level of around 550ppm CO2. According to Stern, there is only one scenario which allows lifestyles to remain unaffected: if we want to keep flying frequently, and also wish to continue consuming global products, then the world scientific community, encouraged by government, must rapidly innovate and deploy new low-carbon technologies.

There is no shortage of technical innovation needed and this could be a real driving force for further expansion of the quaternary sector. Fruits of recent European research include the new Airbus A380, which has the lowest fuel consumption per passenger of any large commercial airliner yet built (it requires less than three litres of fuel per passenger per 100 km travelled, making it more efficient than even the latest hybrid cars).

What else could be achieved with sufficient investment in quaternary sector research? Might it be possible to burn hydrogen instead of fossil fuels? Might improvements in the design of solar panels, marine turbines or wind turbines reap greater rewards? As more and more people adopt these technologies then the price of producing them lowers as an economy of scale develops – and profits are raised which can then be re-invested into fresh research.

Student Practice Question:

Examine the factors responsible for the rise of quaternary employment in the UK.

Government support and private sector investment are themes to pursue as part of this assignment. Climate change is bringing plenty of opportunities for research scientists - both to monitor and predict its effects and to develop new forms of low-carbon technology.

The changing location of industry

Many economic factors influence the location of secondary (manufacturing) industries, including transportation and labour costs, the availability of government grants and import taxes and tariffs. Physical site factors are also very important. The presence of raw material is an obvious concern for some basic processing industries, especially those connected with the food and energy sector.

More general physical requirements can include flat land (with room for expansion), often in close proximity to water (which serves several purposes, including use as a coolant, as a raw material, or as a transport route). Many industries are found in coastal locations as this is a break-of-bulk point, where goods or parts that have been shipped from one nation to another are de-containerised. Assembly industries that use parts transported from many different destinations are often located close to major ports. Although manufacturing has shrunk in the UK, significant amounts of what remains can be found on low-lying flat ground near to major rivers and along the coastline.

Physical geography is also a major determinant on other types of industry. Primary industries (fishing, farming, forestry, energy and mining) all depend directly upon the land. Tourism and leisure – a major component of the tertiary sector – are often highly dependent on climate and on the physical endowments of certain landscapes, including coastal scenery.

Why might global warming bring changes to the location of industry in the UK?

Some primary industry, especially agriculture, may be lost altogether if land is abandoned to the sea as part of a strategy of managed retreat designed to allow rising waters to take their natural course. If a cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost of maintaining ever more costly defences (as sea levels rise) outweighs the benefits of saving farmland then it may be given up to the sea. This has already occurred at Porlock in west Somerset, where agricultural land has been left to flood.

Many coastal-located manufacturing and assembly industries are likely to find themselves similarly at risk of flooding in future and may need to consider relocating inland should the high-impact scenario of a 0.7m sea level rise come to pass during the present century. More worryingly, many of the UK nuclear facilities are situated on beaches or close to the sea. For example, most of the Sellafield site is less than 100m from the sea and is only a few metres above mean sea level.

There will be winners and losers within the tourist industry and other tertiary industries as a result of global warming. At a local scale, rising sea levels could require many guest houses, hotels and attractions to migrate further inland, especially along the south coast where the land is sinking (due to isostatic rebound) at the same time that sea levels are rising (e.g. in areas such as Poole Harbour or Christchurch Bay). However, an expansion of tourism could be seen in more northerly regions of the UK, especially along the east coast where rainfall is generally lower.

Student Practice Question:

Examine the factors responsible for the changing location of either manufacturing or tertiary industries.

While most answers are sure to discuss low labour costs in Newly Industrialised Countries as well as the changing availability of government grants, a broader response might take in include climate change as a growing influence on decision-making, especially for new businesses.

Transnational Corporations

Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are companies that operate in a number of different countries. They are agents of modern economic globalisation. The largest of these giants consist of vast international networks of supply and sales chains. They are responsible for production and consumption patterns that require vast amounts of energy to be used transporting goods between different markets all across the globe.

Many of the world’s largest TNCs are head-quartered in the UK. These include Tesco, whose worldwide sales topped £37 billion last year, resulting in an amazing £2.03 billion profit. Other famous names include Barclays, Vodafone, Diageo and Rio Tinto.

By their very nature, each of these organisations has a huge carbon footprint. This is the amount of carbon dioxide used by an individual or organisation as they go about their everyday lives or operations. It is usually measured in terms of the tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel being used to provide energy for buildings, transport and the manufacture and eventual disposal of goods.

The global supply networks of TNCs are highly carbon-emitting. For instance, runner beans flown into a UK supermarket from Zambia are responsible for 2,011kg CO2 per load, whereas sprouts driven from Kent to London by lorry only generate 5kg CO2 per load.

How are UK TNCs responding to the challenge of climate change?

Pressure for large TNCs to reduce their carbon footprint is likely to come from two sources:
Consumers are becoming far more concerned about climate change and the role that their own personal consumption habits are playing. They may begin to avoid products that have been air-freighted vast distances. If this happens, companies will respond to market demand and start looking to source more food locally if they think it will help sales - which could be good news for British producers. Consumer pressure has certainly worked in this way in the past - firms such as Barclays stopped investing in South Africa during the Apartheid era (when black South Africans were denied political rights) as a result of consumer boycotts. We could therefore see the geographies of major supermarket chains changing in future - favouring locally-produced goods over imports. However, this in itself could be controversial if farmers in developing countries lose desperately-needed sales.
Green fuel taxes may be introduced by the government. Increased fuel taxes would force TNCs to rationalise their transport networks and to use less energy in stores - all of which would help reduce CO2 emissions. Concern for the environmental was one of the reasons why Ken Livingstone introduced the London Congestion Charge which has succeeded in reducing carbon emissions from London's transport.

One highly controversial area of industry where future changes may need to be introduced is the aviation sector. Taxing aviation fuel would bring the airlines in line with the rail sector. The aviation sector is the fastest growing contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change - but it is currently exempt from the emissions reduction schemes adopted under the Kyoto Protocol.

Student Practice Question:

Discuss the social and environmental impacts associated with the rise of large Transnational Corporations.

Impacts can be positive as well as negative. While an answer should draw attention to the worst impacts of TNCs, it might also suggest that legislation and rising consumer awareness of the importance of reducing carbon emissions may eventually result in the ecological footprint of TNCs being reduced. But not without negative social impacts for producers in far-way countries.

Fieldwork and practical investigations

A study of farming could be ideal for a student living in a rural environment (and who may even have a farming background). An investigation that is focused upon change will almost certainly question the impact of government policies and changing consumer preferences. However, it may also be possible to inquire if weather conditions over recent years have had any impact upon decision-making: have any new crops been introduced in response to warmer weather, for instance? For such a study to be successful, a student will need full cooperation from the farmer(s) being surveyed, as they will be personally providing much of the data.

A study of a supermarket as a site of consumption could provide a local study whose analysis will connect with plenty of interesting global issues. Where is food sourced from? How are store supply patterns changing? Are fewer or more products shipped over long distances than in the past? Alternatively, an investigation could contrast the supply networks of two different suppliers, perhaps an organic store and a supermarket.

London-based students could investigate the impact of the London congestion charge on local businesses (one stated aim of the charge has been to reduce London’s carbon emissions).

Other suggestions:

  • Investigating the environmental impact of transport terminals

  • Investigating the environmental impact of wind turbines

  • Investigating changing patterns of car manufacture or ownership (is awareness of climate change influencing people's decisions to buy SUVs, Smart Cars or Hybrids?)