A landmark study by UNEP – published to coincide with World Environment Day – has concluded that the world’s deserts are facing dramatic changes due to climate change and increasing demand for water.

Almost one-quarter of the earth’s land surface – some 33.7 million square kilometres – has been defined as “desert” in some sense. These deserts are inhabited by over 500 million people, significantly more than previously thought. They face a tough future.

Climate change is already affecting deserts, where temperatures could rise by an average of as much as five to seven degrees C by 2071 -2100. Temperatures have risen already betweeen 0.5 and two degrees C in the period 1976-2000.

Rainfall is already declining:The Dashti Kbir desert in Iran has seen a 16 per cent fall per decade in rainfall during the same period, the Kalahari in South Africa a 12 per cent decline and the Atacama desert in Chile , an eight per cent drop.

But the report is not all bad news. It predicts that deserts could become the “carbon-free power houses of the 21st century”. An area 800 by 800 km of a desert such as the Sahara could capture enough solar energy to generate all the world’s electricity.

So who needs nuclear power?