Assessing the consequences of climate change for food and forest resources: A view from the IPCC

William E. Easterling, Michael Apps

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

23 Scopus citations


Important findings on the consequences of climate change for agriculture and forestry from the recently completed Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are reviewed, with emphasis on new knowledge that emerged since the Second Assessment Report (SAR). The State-Pressure-Response-Adaptation model is used to organize the review. The major findings are: • Constant or declining food prices are expected for at least the next 25 yr, although food security problems will persist in many developing countries as those countries deal with population increases, political crisis, poor resource endowments, and steady environmental degradation. Most economic model projections suggest that low relative food prices will extend beyond the next 25 yr, although our confidence in these projections erodes farther out into the 21st century. • Although deforestation rates may have decreased since the early 1990s, degradation with a loss of forest productivity and biomass has occurred at large spatial scales as a result of fragmentation, non-sustainable practices and infrastructure development. • According to United Nations estimates, approximately 23% of all forest and agricultural lands were classified as degraded over the period since World War II. • At a worldwide scale, global change pressures (climate change, land-use practices and changes in atmospheric chemistry) are increasingly affecting the supply of goods and services from forests. • The most realistic experiments to date - free air experiments in an irrigated environment - indicate that C3 agricultural crops in particular respond favorably to gradually increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations (e.g., wheat yield increases by an average of 28%), although extrapolation of experimental results to real world production where several factors (e.g., nutrients, temperature, precipitation, and others) are likely to be limiting at one time or another remains problematic. Moreover, little is known of crop response to elevated CO2 in the tropics, as most of the research has been conducted in the mid-latitudes. • Research suggests that for some crops, for example rice, CO2 benefits may decline quickly as temperatures warm beyond optimum photosynthetic levels. However, crop plant growth may benefit relatively more from CO2 enrichment in drought conditions than in wet conditions. • The unambiguous separation of the relative influences of elevated ambient CO2 levels, climate change responses, and direct human influences (such as present and historical land-use change) on trees at the global and regional scales is still problematic. In some regions such as the temperate and boreal forests, climate change impacts, direct human interventions (including nitrogen-bearing pollution), and the legacy of past human activities (land-use change) appear to be more significant than CO2 fertilization effects. This subject is, however an area of continuing scientific debate, although there does appear to be consensus that any CO2 fertilization effect will saturate (disappear) in the coming century. • Modeling studies suggest that anywarming above current temperatures will diminish crop yields in the tropics while up to 2-3°C of warming in the mid-latitudes may be tolerated by crops, especially if accompanied by increasing precipitation. The preponderance of developing countries lies in or near the tropics; this finding does not bode well for food production in those countries. • Where direct human pressures do not mask them, there is increasing evidence of the impacts of climate change on forests associated with changes in natural disturbance regimes, growing season length, and local climatic extremes. • Recent advances in modeling of vegetation response suggest that transient effects associated with dynamically responding ecosystems to climate change will increasingly dominate over the next century and that during these changes the global forest resource is likely to be adversely affected. • The ability of livestock producers to adapt their herds to the physiological stress of climate change appears encouraging due to a variety of techniques for dealing with climate stress, but this issue is not well constrained, in part because of the general lack of experimentation and simulations of livestock adaptation to climate change. • Crop and livestock farmers who have sufficient access to capital and technologies should be able to adapt their farming systems to climate change. Substantial changes in their mix of crops and livestock production may be necessary, however, as considerable costs could be involved in this process because investments in learning and gaining experience with different crops or irrigation. • Impacts of climate change on agriculture after adaptation are estimated to result in small percentage changes in overall global income. Nations with large resource endowments (i.e., developed countries) will fare better in adapting to climate change than those with poor resource endowments (i.e., developing countries and countries in transition, especially in the tropics and subtropics) which will fare worse. This, in turn, could worsen income disparities between developed and developing countries. • Although local forest ecosystems will be highly affected, with potentially significant local economic impacts, it is believed that, at regional and global scales, the global supply of timber and non-wood goods and services will adapt through changes in the global market place. However, there will be regional shifts in market share associated with changes in forest productivity with climate change: in contrast to the findings of the SAR, recent studies suggest that the changes will favor producers in developing countries, possibly at the expense of temperate and boreal suppliers. • Global agricultural vulnerability is assessed by the anticipated effects of climate change on food prices. Based on the accumulated evidence of modeling studies, a global temperature rise of greater than 2.5°C is likely to reverse the trend of falling real food prices. This would greatly stress food security in many developing countries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIncreasing Climate Variability and Change
Subtitle of host publicationReducing the Vulnerability of Agriculture and Forestry
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)1402033540, 9781402033544
StatePublished - Dec 1 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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