Regional disparities in the beneficial effects of rising CO2 concentrations on crop water productivity


Rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations ([CO2]) are expected to enhance photosynthesis and reduce crop water use1. However, there is high uncertainty about the global implications of these effects for future crop production and agricultural water requirements under climate change. Here we combine results from networks of field experiments1,2 and global crop models3 to present a spatially explicit global perspective on crop water productivity (CWP, the ratio of crop yield to evapotranspiration) for wheat, maize, rice and soybean under elevated [CO2] and associated climate change projected for a high-end greenhouse gas emissions scenario. We find CO2 effects increase global CWP by 10[0;47]%–27[7;37]% (median[interquartile range] across the model ensemble) by the 2080s depending on crop types, with particularly large increases in arid regions (by up to 48[25;56]% for rainfed wheat). If realized in the fields, the effects of elevated [CO2] could considerably mitigate global yield losses whilst reducing agricultural consumptive water use (4–17%). We identify regional disparities driven by differences in growing conditions across agro-ecosystems that could have implications for increasing food production without compromising water security. Finally, our results demonstrate the need to expand field experiments and encourage greater consistency in modelling the effects of rising [CO2] across crop and hydrological modelling communities.

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Figure 1: Comparison between FACE observations and GGCM simulations.
Figure 2: Simulated CWP responses across agro-climatic regions.
Figure 3: Maps of median relative change between simulated CWP CC w/ CO2 and CC w/o CO2 only (%) in the model ensemble (including six GGCMs × five GCMs) by 2050 under RCP 8.5.
Figure 4: Global average CWP (%) relative to 2000 simulated under RCP 8.5 for each GGCM driven by five different GCMs.


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This work has been conducted under the framework of ISI-MIP and in partnership with the AgMIP community. The ISI-MIP Fast Track project was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with project funding reference number 01LS1201A. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. This work was also supported by a research stipend from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a Belmont Forum grant from the UK Natural Environment Research Council (grant no. NE/L008785/1) to D.D., by the National Science Foundation under grants SBE-0951576 and GEO-1215910 to J.E., by the BMBF grant 01LN1317A to C.M., and by the Formas Strong Research Environment ‘land use today and tomorrow’ to S.O., T.A.M.P. was supported by EU FP7 project EMBRACE (grant no. 282672). We are grateful to B. A. Kimball and A. Leakey for pointing out appropriate literature on the FACE experiments.

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D.D. had the main responsibility for the study idea, methods, analysis and writing the paper. D.D., J.E. and C.R. designed and coordinated the modelling intercomparison analysis. J.E., C.F., C.M. and T.A.M.P. contributed to analysis. D.D., J.E., C.F., C.M., T.A.M.P., S.O., N.K. and E.S. performed the crop model simulations. J.E., C.M., C.F., T.A.M.P., K.J.B., D.C. and A.C.R. made significant contributions in developing the paper structure and interpreting the results. J.E., A.C.R., D.G., S.S., H.Y., J.W.J. and C.R. made important contributions in developing the original study idea. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Delphine Deryng.

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Deryng, D., Elliott, J., Folberth, C. et al. Regional disparities in the beneficial effects of rising CO2 concentrations on crop water productivity. Nature Clim Change 6, 786–790 (2016).

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