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Climate Explained: Why Higher Carbon Dioxide Levels Aren’t Good News, Even If Plants Grow Faster

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Climate Explained: Why Higher Carbon Dioxide Levels Aren’t Good News, Even If Plants Grow Faster
At first sight, it seems more CO₂ can only be beneficial to plants, but things are a lot more complex than that. sarayut Thaneerat / Getty Images

By Sebastian Leuzinger

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you'd like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

If carbon dioxide levels were to double, how much increase in plant growth would this cause? How much of the world's deserts would disappear due to plants' increased drought tolerance in a high carbon dioxide environment?

Compared to pre-industrial levels, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in the atmosphere will have doubled in about 20 to 30 years, depending on how much CO₂ we emit over the coming years. More CO₂ generally leads to higher rates of photosynthesis and less water consumption in plants.

At first sight, it seems more CO₂ can only be beneficial to plants, but things are a lot more complex than that.


Let's look at the first part of the question.

Some plants do grow faster under elevated levels of atmospheric CO₂, but this happens mostly in crops and young trees, and generally not in mature forests.

Even if plants grew twice as fast under doubled CO₂ levels, it would not mean they strip twice as much CO₂ from the atmosphere. Plants take carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, but that carbon is going straight back via natural decomposition when plants die or when they are harvested and consumed.

At best, you might be mowing your lawn twice as often or harvesting your plantation forests earlier.

The most important aspect is how long the carbon stays locked away from the atmosphere - and this is where we have to make a clear distinction between increased carbon flux (faster growth) or an increasing carbon pool (actual carbon sequestration). Your bank account is a useful analogy to illustrate this difference: fluxes are transfers, pools are balances.

The Global Carbon Budget

Of the almost 10 billion tonnes (gigatonnes, or Gt) of carbon we emit every year through the burning of fossil fuels, only about half accumulates in the atmosphere. Around a quarter ends up in the ocean (about 2.4 Gt), and the remainder (about 3 Gt) is thought to be taken up by terrestrial plants.

While the ocean and the atmospheric sinks are relatively easy to quantify, the terrestrial sink isn't. In fact, the 3 Gt can be thought of more as an unaccounted residual. Ultimately, the emitted carbon needs to go somewhere, and if it isn't the ocean or the atmosphere, it must be the land.

So yes, the terrestrial system takes up a substantial proportion of the carbon we emit, but the attribution of this sink to elevated levels of CO₂ is difficult. This is because many other factors may contribute to the land carbon sink: rising temperature, increased use of fertilisers and atmospheric nitrogen deposition, changed land management (including land abandonment), and changes in species composition.

Current estimates assign about a quarter of this land sink to elevated levels of CO₂, but estimates are very uncertain.

In summary, rising CO₂ leads to faster plant growth - sometimes. And this increased growth only partly contributes to sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The important questions are how long this carbon is locked away from the atmosphere, and how much longer the currently observed land sink will continue.

The second part of the question refers to a side-effect of rising levels of CO₂ in the air: the fact that it enables plants to save water.

Plants regulate the exchange of carbon dioxide and water vapour by opening or closing small pores, called stomata, on the surface of their leaves. Under higher concentrations of CO₂, they can reduce the opening of these pores, and that in turn means they lose less water.

This alleviates drought stress in already dry areas. But again, the issue is more complex because CO₂ is not the only parameter that changes. Dry areas also get warmer, which means that more water evaporates and this often compensates for the water-saving effect.

Overall, rising CO₂ has contributed to some degree to the greening of Earth, but it is likely that this trend will not continue under the much more complex combination of global change drivers, particularly in arid regions.

Sebastian Leuzinger is a Professor at Auckland University of Technology.

Disclosure statement: Sebastian Leuzinger receives funding from the Royal Society.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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