Our Impact on Climate Change and Land Use in 5 Charts
As the world population approaches the eight billion mark, it’s becoming clear that we’re impacting the planet in unprecedented ways.
Humans have made such dramatic changes to Earth’s systems, from climate to geology, that many are suggesting we’ve entered into a new epoch – the Anthropocene.
To better understand the challenges of this era of wide-sweeping human impact on the planet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has produced a massive report covering land use and climate change.
According to the IPCC, the situation is looking more dire by the year. Below are a few of the key insights buried within the 1,400+ pages of the massive report.
Shifting Global Land Use
The scale of land use and loss of biodiversity are unprecedented in human history.
According to the report, roughly two-thirds of the world’s ice-free land is now devoted to human uses. Ecosystems, both forested and unforested, only account for about 16% of land today. Part of the reason for this dwindling supply of natural habitat is the rapid increase of agricultural activity around the world.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, global land use has shifted dramatically:
Not only has land use changed, but so has farming itself. In many parts of the world, increased yields will primarily come from existing agricultural land. For example, wheat yields are projected to increase 11% by the year 2026, despite the growing area only increasing by 1.8%. Rice production exhibits a similar trend, with 93% of the projected increase expected to come from increased yields rather than from area expansion. In some cases, intensive farming practices can degrade soil more than 100x faster than the time it takes for new soil to form, leaving fertilizers to pick up the slack.
One of the most dramatic changes highlighted in the report is the nearly eight-fold increase in the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers since the early 1960s. These types of fertilizers are having serious downstream effects on aquatic ecosystems, in some cases creating “dead zones” such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to the negative impacts outlined above, the simple act of feeding ourselves also accounts for one-third of our global greenhouse gas footprint.
Things are Heating Up
The past half-decade is likely to become the warmest five-year stretch in recorded history, underscoring the rapid pace of climate change. On a global scale, even a small increase in temperature can have a big impact on climate and our ecosystems.
For example, air can hold approximately 7% more moisture for every 1ºC increase, leading to an uptick in extreme rainfall events. These events can trigger landslides, increase the rate of soil erosion, and damage crops – just one example of how climate change can cause a chain reaction.
For the billions of people who live in “drylands”, climate change is serving up a completely different scenario:
“Heatwaves are projected to increase in frequency, intensity and duration in most parts of the world and drought frequency and intensity is projected to increase in some regions that are already drought prone.”
— IPCC report on Climate Change and Land, 2019
This is particularly worrisome as 90% of people in these arid or semiarid regions live in developing economies that are still very reliant on agriculture.
In addition to water scarcity, the IPCC has identified a number of other categories, including soil erosion and permafrost degradation. In all seven categories, our current global temperature puts us firmly in the moderate to high risk zone. These risks predict events with widespread societal impact, such as regional “food shocks” and millions of additional people exposed to wildfires.
This IPCC report makes one thing clear. In addition to tackling emissions in our cities and transportation networks, we’ll need to substantially change the way we use our land and rethink our entire agricultural system if we’re serious about mitigating the impact of climate change.
Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years
The Western U.S. is no stranger to droughts. But this year’s is one of the worst yet. Here’s a historical look at U.S. droughts since 1999.
Animated Map: U.S. Droughts Over the Last 20 Years
The Western U.S. is experiencing one of the worst recorded droughts in the last 20 years.
Temperatures from California to the Dakotas are currently hovering around 9-12°F above average—but how bad is the situation compared to past years?
This animated map by reddit user /NothingAbnormalHere provides a historical look at droughts in the U.S. since 1999, using data and graphics from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM).
What is the U.S. Drought Monitor?
Over the last two decades, the USDM has been tracking, measuring, and comparing droughts across America.
While droughts can be difficult to classify and standardize, there are various factors that can be used to gauge when a region is experiencing drought. These include measurements of snowpack levels, soil moisture, and recent precipitation.
To track these conditions (and make sense of them), the USDM synthesizes data from a plethora of meteorological sources, including the Palmer Drought Severity Index and the Standardized Precipitation Index.
From there, conditions are broken down into categories, ranging from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (Exceptional Drought). A map is released each week that shows which states are experiencing drought, and to what degree.
Where Are The Most Drought-Prone Areas?
According to a map created by climatologist Becky Bolinger (which is published on Drought.gov), Arizona and Nevada are the most historically drought-prone states—the two have experienced drought more than 50% of the time tracked by the USDM.
California is high on the list as well, with the state experiencing drought at least 40% of the time.
As the historical data shows, the West is no stranger to droughts. However, this year’s drought has become particularly worrisome because of its intensity and breadth.
Right now, more than a quarter of the West is experiencing a D4 level drought—a new record. To help put things into perspective, here’s a look at how much overall land area in the West has been in drought, since 2000:
When a region is experiencing a D4 drought, possible impacts include:
- Water Scarcity
Lower reservoirs, combined with decreased snowpack lead to water shortages.
- Crop losses
Water shortages mean less water for fields, which can lead to acres of fallow (unused) farmland.
Dry conditions and lack of moisture increase the risk of wildfires.
Is This the New Norm?
This record-breaking drought is wreaking havoc across the West. In California, reservoirs have about half as much water as they usually do, and crop failures are happening across Colorado.
The worst part? Some experts believe that this could be the new normal if human-driven climate change continues to increase average temperatures across the globe.
The Uses of Corn: Industries Affected by High Corn Prices
Corn has many uses that make modern life possible. This infographic breaks down U.S. corn usage in 2020.
Corn Beyond the Cob
Corn or maize is the second most-produced crop in the world, and it’s more than just a staple in our diets.
From the sweetener in our coffees to the ethanol that powers our vehicles, corn has hundreds of uses. Consequently, high corn prices have a domino effect that can affect many supply chains and possibly even increase the cost of our weekly groceries, especially if they include tortilla chips.
This infographic uses data from the National Corn Growers Association to break down U.S. corn use by segment in 2020, and the products that a bushel of corn can produce.
The Uses of Corn in the U.S.
While corn on the cob is quite popular, not all corn is sweet. There are five major types of corn grown around the world, and each one differs in taste and uses. Of these, yellow dent corn or field corn accounts for the majority of commercial U.S. production.
Here’s a breakdown of U.S. corn usage in 2020:
|Segment||Bushels Used (millions)||% of Usage (2020)|
|Ethanol (Animal Feed)||1,075||7.4%|
Corn accounts for more than 96% of U.S. feed grain use and production. As a result, animal feed makes up nearly 40% of the country’s corn usage. This is because corn is a rich source of carbohydrates, and in combination with protein from soybeans, it can make for an effective diet for livestock.
In the United States, federal mandates require vehicles to use a blend of gasoline and biofuels like ethanol—94% of which is produced from the starch in corn grain. Therefore, a large portion of U.S. corn goes into ethanol production.
Interestingly, the ethanol distillation process produces a co-product known as dried distillers grain, which serves as low-cost, protein-rich animal feed for livestock. On average, the U.S. ethanol industry produces around 90,000 tons of distillers grains each week.
Animal feed and ethanol production collectively make up around 73% of U.S. corn usage. Other uses of corn include the production of sweeteners, starch, cereal, and alcoholic beverages like whiskey.
Breaking Down U.S. Corn Exports
The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and exporter of corn and accounted for roughly 36% of exports in 2020.
Up until 2019, the majority of U.S. corn exports went to Mexico, Japan, and Colombia. China wasn’t among the top 10 destinations, but this changed in 2020.
Between January 2020 and 2021, U.S. corn exports to China increased exponentially, reaching an all-time high in December. China’s massive import appetite is because of a shortage of domestic supplies amid rising demand for feed from its recovering hog-herd, which was hit by the African swine fever in 2018.
Consequently, China became the third-largest importer of U.S. corn in 2020 after Mexico and Brazil. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that China’s corn imports in 2021 will be much higher than 2020 levels, and the majority of those will be sourced from the United States.
The Corn Price Boom
In addition to a drought-induced yield cut in Brazil, rising demand from China has driven corn prices to their highest level in the last eight years.
Since the beginning of 2020, corn prices have increased 68% and stand at around $6.50 per bushel as of May 19th.
The rise in corn prices is likely to affect several industries and could translate into higher prices for our groceries, including cereals, taco shells, and corn syrups. Additionally, it could also push up the price of gas due to its key role in ethanol production.
Corn, in a Bushel
In a world where commodities like corn are often taken for granted, it’s important to think about how valuable it can be.
A single bushel of corn can provide 33 lbs of sweetener, 31.5 lbs of starch, or 22.4 lbs of polymers. It’s also enough to produce around 3 gallons of ethanol fuel and 16 lbs of distillers dried grains for animal feed.
The uses of corn go far beyond the cob, and just like other raw materials, it supports many industries that make modern life possible.
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