Last orders: Climate change may deprive us of (cheap) beer

This post is also available in: Español

Beer–the world’s most widely-consumed beverage–will fall prey to the ravages of climate change if we don’t reign in carbon emissions, a new study pronounces. Published in Nature Plants, the research finds that under rising temperatures, barley–the central ingredient in beer–will suffer from increasing climate shocks that could slash production and ultimately double the price of the fizzy amber liquid.

This is the first study to consider the impact of climate change on beer, and in doing so it reveals just how vulnerable barley is to the twin threats of heat and drought. The researchers combined climate, economic, and agricultural models to map out beer’s future according to four different climate scenarios that could unfold by the end of the century. They found that even if we cut back on emissions and keep global temperature increases to less than 3 °C, we’ll still experience global barley losses of 3%, with associated declines in beer production.

At the other extreme, if we do nothing to roll back emissions and global temperatures climb by more than 5 °C, the rising frequency of drought and high temperatures will make barley yields plummet by almost 20% worldwide.

These effects will play out uniquely in different countries. Central and South America, as well as Central Africa, will experience the biggest dip in barley yields under climate stress. But parts of North America will actually start producing more barley, because it will grow better in the temperate climate there. Overall, however, there will be a global decline in barley–and with it, beer.

And it’s not just barley yields that will drive this decline: In times of severe drought and heat when grain supplies are low, the researchers predict that a larger share will be siphoned off to feed cattle to produce beef–barley’s other main use. This greater necessity for food over the luxury of a cold beer will thus shape the beverage’s future.

Similarly, as barley becomes an increasingly precious resource, international trade may decline as major barley-producing countries opt to hold onto their grain stocks, instead of exporting them far and wide. Some of the biggest decreases in supply will happen in places that are currently dependent on these imports, like China, Japan, and Belgium. In fact, in Belgium barley consumption is predicted to plummet by 38%. And in China–the world’s largest consumer of beer by volume–citizens will have to grapple with the greatest decline in beer consumption, thanks to climate change.

All of this means the average beer-lover faces a future of much pricier pints. In some countries like the Czech Republic that shift will be extreme: There, the price of a beer is expected to shoot up by more than 600%. On average, the price of a single beer will double globally. Even in the least severe climate scenario, global beer prices would still rise by 15%.

To draw up their projections, the researchers calculated how severe drought and heat would be under four possible climate scenarios that the planet could experience in the future–depending on our emissions habits. They modeled the impact of these varying drought and heat levels on barley production in 34 regions of the world, between 2010 and 2099. By combining this data with economic models that factored in trade and other elements, they were able to show how the supply and price of beer would shift over time, as dictated by climatic extremes.

The declining ubiquity of beer may strike fear into many hearts, but it’s certainly “not the most concerning impact of future climate change,” the researchers feel compelled to note. As well as its role in beer-making, barley’s most important role is providing food for rearing livestock as food. Rich nations would have alternative foods to make up for possible resulting shortfalls in meat and dairy production. But for smallscale farmers in poorer countries where animal herds are often the foundation of food security, declining barley yields could have a profound impact on the availability of food.

In any case, the researchers hope that their spotlight on beer might at least raise the stakes on climate change awareness. For people who feel untouched by these seemingly far-away phenomena, this study shows that the effects of climate change could soon play out in a much more relatable setting: the local pub. Perhaps, therefore, the “cross-cultural appreciation of beer” as the researchers describe it, is something worth tapping into for the future of our planet.

Source: Xie. et. al. “Decreases in global beer supply due to extreme drought and heat.” Nature Plants. 2018.

Get the latest sustainability science delivered to your inbox every week

You have successfully signed up

Become a Member Today >>

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This