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Plants Buy Us Time to Slow Climate Change – But Not Enough to Stop It

Plants Buy Us Time to Slow Climate Change – But Not Enough to Stop It

New research from Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley shows that plants are photosynthesizing more in response to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

Because plants take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into food, forests and other similar ecosystems are considered to be some of the planet’s most important carbon sinks. In fact, the United States and many other countries that participated in last month’s UN Climate Change Conference have made nature-based solutions a critical feature of their carbon dioxide mitigation framework under the Paris Agreement.

As human activities cause more carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere, scientists have debated whether plants are responding by photosynthesizing more and sucking up even more carbon dioxide than they already do – and if so, is it a little or a lot more. Now an international team of researchers led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UC Berkeley have used a novel methodology combining remote sensing, machine learning, and terrestrial biosphere models to find that plants are indeed photosynthesizing more, to the tune of 12% higher global photosynthesis from 1982 to 2020. In that same time period, global carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere grew about 17%, from 360 parts per million (ppm) to 420 ppm.

The 12% increase in photosynthesis translates to 14 petagrams of additional carbon taken out of the atmosphere by plants each year, roughly the equivalent of the carbon emitted worldwide from burning fossil fuels in 2020 alone. Not all of the carbon taken out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis is stored in ecosystems, as much is later released back to the atmosphere through respiration, but the study reports a direct link between the increased photosynthesis and increased global carbon storage. The study was published in Nature.