Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Computation Institute, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA

    • Delphine Deryng
    •  & Joshua Elliott
  2. Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Delphine Deryng
    • , Joshua Elliott
    • , Alex C. Ruane
    •  & Cynthia Rosenzweig
  3. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Delphine Deryng
  4. Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG), 8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland

    • Christian Folberth
    •  & Hong Yang
  5. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Ecosystems Services and Management Program, Schlossplatz 1, Laxenburg A-2361, Austria

    • Christian Folberth
    •  & Nikolay Khabarov
  6. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • Christoph Müller
    • , Dieter Gerten
    •  & Sibyll Schaphoff
  7. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, IMK-IFU, 82467 Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

    • Thomas A. M. Pugh
  8. School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK

    • Thomas A. M. Pugh
  9. University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611-0500, USA

    • Kenneth J. Boote
    •  & James W. Jones
  10. Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change & the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE, UK

    • Declan Conway
  11. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Alex C. Ruane
    •  & Cynthia Rosenzweig
  12. Geography Department, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 10099 Berlin, Germany

    • Dieter Gerten
  13. Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Lund SE-223 62, Sweden

    • Stefan Olin
  14. University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, 1180 Vienna, Austria

    • Erwin Schmid

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Delphine Deryng.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2995