CO2 Benefits Outweigh Climate Stressors: Chinese Wheat

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

In the vast majority of laboratory and field experiments, the benefits of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations for plants (including food crops) generally outweigh the negative impacts from climate change. And this is even assuming the “dumb farmer scenario” that we recently blogged, in which farmers and agronomists don’t develop new production techniques, technologies, crop varietals, etc., to adapt to change, turning expected losses into gains. There is overwhelming evidence such as the remarkably robust increase that has occurred in the yield of most of the world’s major crops when grown in developing or developed nations. In other words, adding CO2 to the atmosphere may be a win-win situation for the world’s vegetation, but we digress…

Here, we’ll highlight a new study showing that including the fertilization effect of higher CO2 concentrations in a crop model of wheat grown in China turns projections of future climate change-driven reductions in crop yields into CO2-driven yield increases.

The study was conducted by researchers Yujie Liu and Fulu Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and will soon be published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. Liu and Tao used a complex crop model to evaluate the changes in wheat production (which accounts from 22% China’s primary food production), in the main wheat cultivation areas in China under three climate change scenarios—global temperature increases of 1°, 2°, and 3°C. They modeled the crop response both with and without considering the fertilization impacts of additional atmospheric CO2 concentrations (which presumably produced the warming) and compared the results. Here is their summary:

There is a high probability of decreasing (increasing) changes in yield and water use efficiency under higher temperature scenarios without (with) consideration of CO2  fertilization effects. Elevated CO2 concentration generally compensates for the negative effects of warming temperatures on production. Moreover, positive effects of elevated CO2 concentration on grain yield increase with warming temperatures. The findings could be critical for climate change-driven agricultural production that ensures global food security.

Findings and conclusions like these are a breath of carbon dioxide-enhanced fresh air in a world of climate gloomsaying.


Liu, Y., and F. Tao, 2012. Probabilistic change of wheat productivity and water use in China for global mean temperature changes of 1, 2, and 3°C. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, doi:10.1175/JAMC-D-12-039.1, in press.