Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Is Key to Preventing Mass Starvation

Published August 28, 2015

Editor’s Note: Sherwood Idso is president of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. Idso received the 2014 Frederick Seitz Memorial Award at the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change, held in July 2014 in Las Vegas. Craig Idso co-authored this paper and is the chairman of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide.

Is the human-induced increase in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration good or bad for Earth and its inhabitants?

Scientists, who base their opinions on real world weather measurements and historical proxy temperature reconstructions, along with the known positive effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide enrichment on terrestrial plant growth and development, adamantly say it’s good. Those arguing for a continuing rise in carbon dioxide emissions have the moral high ground on this issue.

There is concern among many as the world’s population increases, humanity’s growth will deplete Earth’s resources, creating myriad dangers. The Malthusian question arises once again: Have we reached our limits to growth?

For plant life, the answer is clearly no. Literally thousands of experiments have demonstrated that as the air’s carbon dioxide content rises, so too do the growth rates of nearly all plants, leading to a great “greening of Earth,” which shows no signs of declining or even leveling off.

Helping Plants Help Us

Back at the turn of the century, we developed and analyzed a supply-and-demand scenario for food in the year 2050, identifying the needs of the plants that supply 95 percent of the world’s food and projecting historical trends in the productivities of these crops 50 years into the future. Our evaluation included the growth-enhancing effects of carbon dioxide enrichment on these plants and projected yields based on expected future carbon dioxide concentrations.

This work revealed the world’s population will likely be 51 percent greater in the year 2050 than it was in 1998, topping 9 billion people, whereas world food production will be only 37 percent greater if we rely solely on anticipated improvements in agricultural technology and expertise. There’s no need to fear, however: The shortfall in farm production can be overcome through the aerial fertilization effect of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

In order to avoid the unpalatable consequences of widespread hunger and early deaths in the decades ahead it would appear to be absolutely essential the air’s carbon dioxide concentration be allowed to continue to rise. Efforts designed to discourage rising anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are inimical to humanity’s future health and prosperity. 

Water Problems

In Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, written by J.S. Wallace, the author wrote the ongoing “massive and inexorable increase in the number of human beings in the world should be recognized for what it is—the most important global change facing mankind.”

And why is that? First, the projected increase in the number of people that will exist by the year 2050 is more certain to occur than is any other environmental change currently underway. Second, these extra people will need a huge amount of extra food. Third, it will take an equally significant amount of extra water to grow that extra food. Fourth, there is no extra water.

“Over the entire globe, a staggering 67 percent of the future population of the world may experience some water stress,” said Wallace.

This could translate into food insufficiency. Wallace concludes we must produce much more food per unit of available water if we’re going to keep up with demand.

Fortunately, elevated concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide reduce plant water loss by transpiration, while simultaneously enhancing plant photosynthesis and biomass production, thereby enabling Earth’s vegetation to produce considerably more food per unit of water used. Literally thousands of laboratory and field experiments have demonstrated this.


Beyond Carbon Dioxide Enrichment

A second condition necessary to meet future human food needs will be to develop crops with more efficient photosynthetic processes, which will require a full suite of tools, including breeding, gene transfer, and synthetic biology. Unfortunately, political opposition to bioengineered crops is creating a difficult hurdle to overcome these needed strategies.

A third condition necessary to feed the world’s burgeoning human population was identified by David Tillman, et al. in the academic journal Science in 2009. Tillman says the diversion of crops from food to biofuels needs to end. With limited water and limited crops, the conversion of potential food into fuel, while many still live in hunger and Earth’s population is expected to grow, is unconscionable. This is because precious land and water resources are now being used at high rates in the production of biofuels, which diminishes our ability to produce the enormous amounts of extra food we need to feed people now and into the future. This drives up the cost of the foods we currently produce and harms the world’s most impoverished people.

Instead of relying on inefficient biofuels and other so-called renewables, we should concentrate on using our great stores of coal, gas, and oil to meet our future fuel needs. These substances are the least expensive energy sources we currently possess, and utilizing them will lower the costs associated with almost all existing, and most future, products and services. Using these resources produces the carbon dioxide needed to expand crop production and improve crop plants’ water use efficiencies.

The real world effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide enrichment are absolutely essential to our goal of feeding the world’s present and future human populations. And this is the truly moral course we all should be pursuing.