Comparing estimates of climate change impacts from process-based and statistical crop models

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The potential impacts of climate change on crop productivity are of widespread interest to those concerned with addressing climate change and improving global food security. Two common approaches to assess these impacts are process-based simulation models, which attempt to represent key dynamic processes affecting crop yields, and statistical models, which estimate functional relationships between historical observations of weather and yields. Examples of both approaches are increasingly found in the scientific literature, although often published in different disciplinary journals. Here we compare published sensitivities to changes in temperature, precipitation, carbon dioxide (CO2), and ozone from each approach for the subset of crops, locations, and climate scenarios for which both have been applied. Despite a common perception that statistical models are more pessimistic, we find no systematic differences between the predicted sensitivities to warming from process-based and statistical models up to +2 °C, with limited evidence at higher levels of warming. For precipitation, there are many reasons why estimates could be expected to differ, but few estimates exist to develop robust comparisons, and precipitation changes are rarely the dominant factor for predicting impacts given the prominent role of temperature, CO2, and ozone changes. A common difference between process-based and statistical studies is that the former tend to include the effects of CO2 increases that accompany warming, whereas statistical models typically do not. Major needs moving forward include incorporating CO2 effects into statistical studies, improving both approaches' treatment of ozone, and increasing the use of both methods within the same study. At the same time, those who fund or use crop model projections should understand that in the short-term, both approaches when done well are likely to provide similar estimates of warming impacts, with statistical models generally requiring fewer resources to produce robust estimates, especially when applied to crops beyond the major grains.

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