Moving farming North after climate change could increase CO2

Moving farming to new areas as the planet warms up from climate change could release 177 GIGATONS of CO2 into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming

  • Far northern regions and higher altitudes could become suitable for farming
  • This includes the frozen north of Canada and Russia as well as mountain peaks 
  • Researchers say farmers would have to be careful utilising the new landmasses 
  • Tilling this soil could release as much carbon into the atmosphere as the USA will release over the next 100 years 

Moving farming to new areas as the planet warms up from climate change could release 177 Gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming.

A new study by researchers from the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science in Virginia examined the impact of farming in new ‘northern frontier sites’.

Some regions at higher altitudes and latitudes including the currently frozen north of Canada and Russia could become more suitable for farming. 

Unfortunately suddenly turning these new soils could release as much carbon into the atmosphere as the US is likely to release over the next 100 years.

It’s hoped by mapping future farming opportunities and understanding the risks, new agricultural frontiers can be properly managed in advance to minimise risk.

Areas that transition from no current suitability for major commodity crops to suitability for one or more crops are depicted in blue, while currently uncultivated areas that transition to suitability for multiple major commodity crops are shown in red

Hannah and the team, which included researchers from the University of Guelph in Canada, created a first of its kind model of agricultural land predictions. 

The data is based on predicted rises in temperature and changes in climate profiles across the country – leading to the ‘new Northern frontiers’.

‘In a warming world, there will be new opportunities and challenges in the north,’ the authors of the paper said.

‘This work highlights how we must approach the idea of developing new farmland very cautiously and be extremely mindful of potential negative impacts.’

Researchers modelled prospects for growing major food crops in potential new farmland that may come available as climate change alters growing seasons. 

‘Areas currently not suitable for agriculture are likely to become suitable in the next 50 to 100 years,’ said Krishna Bahadur KC from Guelph.

Earth’s agricultural landmass could increase by almost one-third, including vast new farming prospects in Canada and Russia’s north, they found.

‘As current lands become less suitable, there’s going to be pressure to develop new frontiers and that’s going to come with a host of major environmental consequences,’ said lead author Hannah.

The study combined projections for temperature and precipitation from 17 global climate models with agricultural models that predict suitability for growing 12 globally important food crops.

‘We used climate change projections and crop science data to see what we might be able to grow in these regions,’ said Krishna.

Globally, the study found prospective croplands are expected to be most extensive in northern boreal regions. 

More than half of that landmass lies in Canada (1.6 million square miles) and Russia (1.7 million square miles).

This graphic shows the environmental consequences of climate-driven agricultural frontiers with yellow areas showing where one crop could grow and red where two or more could crow

In Canada, four crops – wheat, potatoes, corn and soy – are cold-tolerant enough to grow in more northerly regions under climate change, according to the study.

With longer growing seasons, wheat and potatoes might be suitable for cultivation across the northern reaches of most provinces and much of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. 

Corn and soy could also be grown farther northward, although less extensively.

Growing food in new areas may promote economic development, reducing poverty and food insecurity in Canada’s North, said the researchers.

At the same time, the team calls for policy-makers to balance the need for more food with the potential environmental impacts of more widespread farming.

‘The tradeoffs between environmental concerns and food production may be very significant,’ said co-author Evan Fraser.

‘We need to think carefully about environmental sustainability. And any thought of developing agriculture to take advantage of longer growing seasons due to climate change had to be mindful of the role of Indigenous governance in these areas. 

‘Many of the areas our model suggest may become more suitable for farming are the home of a great many Indigenous communities.’  

More than half of that landmass lies in Canada (1.6 million square miles) including in the very cold Yukon region. Most of the rest of the land lies in Russia (1.7 million square miles)

More intensive farming would also threaten biodiversity hot spots in Central America and the northern Andes, and potentially degrade water quality, Fraser added.

Population estimates for the end of the century range from about 7 billion people to more than 16 billion. 

The world will need to produce an estimated 70 per cent more food by 2050 to sustain a human population of about 9 billion. 

The researchers recommend promoting farming practices that conserve soil carbon, such as leaving northern peat soils intact.

‘We need food, but we don’t want environmental impacts. We need to find a way to balance,’ said Krishna.

The research has been published in the journal PLOS One. 



Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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