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Re-assessing the impact assessment of global climate change

Technological improvements appear to have a large yield-enhancing impact compared with the negative effects of climate change

Read any daily newspaper or follow any news channels, you will surely stumble upon a piece on emerging technology. Each passing day, millennials are being exposed to new innovations, from Elon Musks’ Space X, or machine-learning tools based in the cloud, fostering Artificial Intelligence (AI). As a major factor behind rapid change in lifestyles, technological advancements are making a mark on the ‘information age’. With technological advancement playing such an enormous role in shaping our future, isn’t it imperative to consider technological growth while conducting impact assessments of climate change on agriculture? Or have we just assumed that the impact of climate change will be immune to technological growth?

A recent study conducted as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), strives to address some of these concerns.

The study carries out a systematic global review and compares published projections of climate change impacts from 34 studies for the 2020s for maize, rice and wheat at country level with observed and forecasted national crop yields for the same period based on available global crop statistics. Large discrepancies were observed between actual yield changes of 2016 and projected yield changes of 2020. Much to our comfort, the actual yield losses were substantially lower than the projected yield loses. For instance, the projected yield loss without adaptation and technology was calculated as (minus) 9%, but in fact the observed yield shows a steep increase of +106%.

What are the reasons for this discrepancy? In part, technological improvements appear to have a large yield-enhancing impact compared with the negative effects of climate change, at least in the short term. Confidence in this statement arises from the yield change projections made by International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPRI), which consider technology growth. These projections (+87%) are more in line with the observed yield change (+106%).  

Caveats to climate change impact assessment

Highlighting the importance of technology growth as an important factor to be considered while conducting impact assessments of climate change, Pramod Aggarwal, CCAFS South Asia Regional Program Leader and lead author of the paper, said, “most assessments of climate change impacts on crop yields show low-latitude, low and middle-income countries as highly vulnerable, but these countries have shown the largest growth in observed yields over the same reference time period. One of the prime reasons for these discrepancies is incomplete consideration of technological growth in climate impact assessments”. Uncertainties associated with the methodologies used, and regional variations in adaptation options, further add to the incongruities.  

As the world upholds technological advancement, understanding and making explicit assumptions about technology and technological change in impact assessment of climate change is increasingly important. Climate change in isolation will surely decrease the worlds’ food security, though its impacts will be different depending upon adaptation levels in different places. Technology growth is further enhancing this adaptive capacity. Thus, linking impact assessments to an improved understanding of likely future technological changes and their enabling mechanism is crucial for predicting future impacts accurately. Shalika Vyas, Research Consultant for CCAFS and co-author of the paper, reiterates the importance of integrated impact assessment: "Impact assessments have triggered global climate action. Including likely technological change will make these assessments even more useful for future predictions and scaling-up of much needed adaptation efforts”.

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