Plants Could Save Us From Climate Change - but Not in the Way Scientists Expected

Plants like carbon. Along with light and water, carbon is one of the primary things that they need to grow—and the more of it the better. With more carbon in the atmosphere, some have posited that climate change could be good for plants—whether they be trees in a forest or rows of grain in a field. In a rather elegant solution to climate change, so the thinking goes, the increased growth of plants around the globe could increase the rate that the world’s greenery sucks C02 out of the atmosphere—and help to limit overall emissions.

As the climate negotiators at COP21 hammered out the global deal to slow climate change can attest, science isn't so simple, even if the idea seems logical. And a new study from the University of Minnesota shows that plants aren’t responding to our more carbon-laden world in the expected manner.

The research, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that growth is increasing, yes, but only slightly, and the C02-capture potential that scientists have attributed to plants is likely an exaggeration as a result.

“Current Earth system models assume that global plant growth will provide the tremendous benefit of offsetting a significant portion of humanity’s CO2 emissions, thus buying us much needed time to curb emissions,” William Kolby Smith, a coauthor and postdoctoral fellow, said in an interview with Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “Unfortunately, our observation-based estimates of global vegetation growth indicate that plant growth may not buy us as much time as expected, [so] action to curb emissions is all the more urgent.”

The slower increase in growth may be the result of increased water stress that plants are also experiencing as a result of increased CO2 levels, or a lack of nitrogen and phosphorus—two other elements that are vital to plant growth.

The study is the latest example of the unexpected ways that plants are responding to climate change. A study published in the journal Nature last year found that yields of staple crops like wheat and rice might increase as CO2 levels rise and that extra food will come with diminished nutritional values.

The grains and legumes researchers harvested from test plots surrounded by C02 jets set up to simulate a world where carbon levels are approaching 500 parts per million had between 5 and 10 percent less iron, zinc, and protein. A statement from Harvard University announcing the research, which was conducted by scientists at the school, called the lost nutrition “the most significant health threat ever shown to be associated with climate change.”

But not all is bad when it comes to plants and climate change: There is a real potential to grow a solution, or at lease a partial one, to rising temperatures, and it's being incorporated into the Paris deal. Unlike the laissez-faire idea that plants left to their own devices will help to offset human-caused emissions, carbon farming—growing trees or other plants to sequester CO2—is a far more deliberate approach. Similarly, changes to farming food crops can help to turn agriculture from a sector responsible for nearly a third of global emissions into one that both captures and stores carbon.

This article originally appeared on Reprinted with permission.

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