If You Want to Know a Country’s Economic Future, Check How Far It Is From the Equator
It’s no secret that global climate change hurts the economy. With more frequent and more severe storms, flooding, drought, and fires, countries around the world are already taking economic hits. And as long-term events like rising sea levels and temperature patterns continue to affect agriculture and human health, the economic damage will only grow.
The impact, however, will be unequally distributed. A recent report from S&P Global assessed how 135 countries might be affected by climate-related events in 2050. The economic risk levels ranged from 0% of GDP (indicating that the economy will likely not be exposed to climate hazards) to 100% of GDP (the entire economy could be exposed to climate hazards). The measurement predicts only economic vulnerability—not economic loss. For example, a country with 80% GDP exposure doesn’t mean that 80% of the economy will be wiped out in 30 years, but rather that 80% of the economy is at risk of experiencing a loss.
Using these percentages, TIME “mapped” countries on a blue-to-red scale to see which economies are in least and most danger. But instead of a standard map—one with, say, borders and oceans—we looked at each country as a latitudinal point. The result was a chart that looks a bit like a volcano turned sideways.
What this shows is that economies that have huge physical climate risk—in some cases 100% exposed—are generally within 20 degrees of the equator. And none are in the far northern or southern parts of the globe. On the other hand, countries that have minimal risk are from a wide range of latitudes, but skew more to the poles.
To arrive at these numbers, S&P Global researchers considered how much of each country’s area is prone to experience wildfires, storms, floods, and rising sea levels, as well as how much of agricultural land is at risk of water stress, and workforce population impacted by extreme heat.
There are a few reasons why this geographic pattern exists. For one, a number of nations at or near Earth’s waistline are small island states that are highly vulnerable to massive storms that can devastate infrastructure and crimp their most dependent industries, such as tourism. Additionally, a large share of countries located around the equator have less diversified economies that rely on physical labor to produce goods. Extreme heat can have devastating effects on labor productivity in these nations. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, higher-income and service-driven countries like Botswana and South Africa, which are at the tip of the continent, have 19% and 0% GDP exposure; low-income countries like Ethiopia and Burkina Faso that rely more on agriculture and industry and sit just above the equator, have 93% and 99% GDP exposure, respectively.
A separate element of the study looked at how prepared each country might be to adapt to climate impacts on a scale from 1 (most ready) to 6 (least ready). This score is not a factor in the GDP risk assessment, but it does serve to show how prepared each country might be to address those risks.
When TIME plotted this readiness assessment based on country latitude, the trends—particularly at the extreme ends of the readiness scale—were even more stark than GDP exposure. Among countries with the best readiness score, only the highly developed city-state of Singapore lies on the equator. And conversely, nearly all the countries with the worst readiness score are within 20 degrees of the equator.
Taken together, the charts indicate that countries in northern and southern latitudes are more likely to have resources to prepare the best for climate effects—even though their economies are the least at risk. This is because these nations, particularly those on the European continent—have diversified and service-based economies that can take Mother Nature’s punches. They are also wealthier and more technologically advanced, which allows them to funnel resources into climate adaptation efforts.
While S&P Global didn’t quantify GDP losses on a country level due to uncertainty surrounding the reliability of data at that level, it did calculate an estimate for global regions and the world. It found that 4% of the global economy could be lost to climate change impacts by 2050, assuming that countries stick to their current pledges to address climate change. As Marion Amiot, one of authors of the study, points out, a loss that small may not seem like a big deal, but it would be even worse than the 3.4% global GDP decline in 2020 due to COVID-19.