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Can plants continue offsetting our carbon emissions in a warming world?

Climate change is undeniably heating up our planet. A big question looms: How much can we trust our plants and soils to help clean up the carbon mess we’ve created? 

According to new research led by Wu Sun and Anna Michalak of the Carnegie Institute for Science, we might have some surprising answers.

In a recent study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers use a fresh technique to understand the temperature sensitivity of ecosystem respiration. In simple terms, they looked at how a warming world affects the way the land breathes.

“Plants provide us a free service,” said Michalak. “They remove between a quarter and a third of our carbon emissions from the air. But, as the Earth gets warmer, can they keep up?” 

Her question is not just academic. The answers will help us plan for our climate’s future.

How plants protect Earth from carbon emissions

Let’s break it down. Plants take in carbon dioxide through a process called photosynthesis. This is how they make their food, using sunlight. But plants also respire, day and night, breathing out carbon dioxide just like we do.

If we can understand the balance of these two processes across everything from soil microbes to towering trees, we can make better predictions about climate change.

In the past, researchers have found some ingenious ways to track photosynthesis, like using satellites to keep an eye on global plant activity. But measuring respiration on a large scale has been a challenge until now.

“Our goal was to find a new method to see how temperature changes affect respiration in different ecosystems across North America,” said Sun. “This is vital for refining our predictions about climate change and for creating strategies to deal with it.”

How the study was conducted

The researchers used measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations taken from dozens of monitoring stations all across North America to estimate how much respiration increases when temperatures go up.

Their findings were quite surprising. The experts discovered that the current models may overestimate the temperature sensitivity of respiration. They also found differences between forests and croplands. 

Up until now, no one has been able to use large-scale data to study these temperature sensitivities. Previous studies focused on smaller plots of land.

“Using atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements from a few dozen well-placed stations can tell us about carbon fluxes across entire biomes in North America,” Sun said. 

“This gives us a more comprehensive understanding of respiration at the continental scale, helping us to see how future warming might impact the biosphere’s ability to hold onto carbon.”

What the research team learned

However, they found that respiration may not be as sensitive to warming as we once thought. But, they remind us that this is only one piece of the puzzle.

“Even though our study suggests that North American ecosystems might be tougher against warming than we thought, slowing down climate change depends on us,” Michalak warned. 

“We can’t count on the natural components of the global carbon cycle to do all the work. We need to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere as fast as we can. It’s our job to put the brakes on this runaway train.”

More about plants and their contributions to the Earth 

Plants contribute to Earth and its inhabitants in countless ways. Here are some key areas:

Climate regulation

Plants, particularly forests, help to regulate the Earth’s climate by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, thereby reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They also release oxygen, which is vital for many life forms, including humans.

Food supply

Plants are the primary source of food for both humans and animals. They provide fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, and more, which are essential to our diet.


Many animals, insects, and other organisms depend on plants for shelter. Forests, grasslands, and even underwater plants in oceans and lakes provide vital ecosystems where various species can thrive.

Water cycle regulation

Plants play a crucial role in the water cycle. Through a process called transpiration, they release water vapor into the atmosphere, contributing to cloud formation and rainfall.

Soil health

Plants help to maintain healthy soil. Their roots prevent soil erosion, and when plants die, their decomposing matter adds nutrients to the soil, promoting its fertility.

Medicinal use 

Many plants have medicinal properties and are used in the creation of drugs and treatments for various illnesses. For instance, the bark of willow trees has been used for centuries to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

Cultural significance

Plants often hold significant cultural and spiritual value. Many societies around the world have specific plants that are symbolically important, used in ceremonies, or considered sacred.

Aesthetic value 

Plants also contribute to the Earth’s beauty, providing lush landscapes, serene forests, and colorful flowers. They are used for their aesthetic appeal in parks, gardens, and as indoor decorations.

Understanding the multiple roles plants play is important for appreciating their value and the need for their conservation. With increasing threats from climate change, deforestation, and other human activities, protecting our plant life is more important than ever.


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