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Are Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Better For Plants?

Updated on July 12, 2011

One common argument by people who don't think we should be doing anything about carbon dioxide emissions is that rising levels of carbon dioxide will benefit plants.

They are right. An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels WILL benefit plants.

But the more pressing question is, which ones?

A Quick Overview of the Science

As most people know, plants "breathe" carbon dioxide (CO2) in much the same way humans and other animals breathe oxygen. Plants can also store, or sequester, carbon dioxide in their roots, stems, trunks, or leaves. CO2 stored above ground in trunks or leaves is released back into the atmosphere when the plant rots or burns, while CO2 stored in the roots can remain in the soil for many years and is released by soil disturbances, such as digging or plowing.

These natural processes can have a profound effect on global climate through their regulation of atmospheric levels of CO2, which is a greenhouse gas.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels currently stand at about 390 parts per million (ppm). This is an increase of 110 ppm over the pre-industrial of about 275-280 ppm that existed prior to about 1850, and it is believed to be the highest level in more than 2 million years. The majority of this increase is believed to be a result of human activity, including burning fossil fuels for energy and land use changes such as deforestation and agricultural tillage.

Depending on how successfully humans are able to reduce our carbon emissions, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the year 2100 are expected to reach anywhere from about 500 ppm to more than 900 ppm.

CO2 Levels Recorded in Ice Cores, 800,000 BC - present


Which Plants Benefit From Increased CO2 Levels?

Because plants need CO2 to conduct photosynthesis, increased atmospheric CO2 has the potential to be highly beneficial to many plant species.

Unfortunately, higher CO2 levels seem to benefit some plants more than others, and the plants that benefit most are not necessarily those that people would like to benefit.

A growing number of studies are finding that the plants that benefit most from increased atmospheric CO2 levels are a group of aggressive "pioneer" species that thrive in marginal and disturbed environments. This particular group of plants is better known as "noxious weeds."

Weeds already cost farmers an average of 12% of their harvest, resulting in net losses of an estimated $33 billion annually, in addition to expenses averaging $10 billion annually for herbicides. As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, this problem is likely to increase.

Leaves of three, let it be. Poison ivy grows larger, faster, and more virulent with higher atmospheric CO2 levels. Photo by blmurch.
Leaves of three, let it be. Poison ivy grows larger, faster, and more virulent with higher atmospheric CO2 levels. Photo by blmurch.

For example, a study comparing six varieties of wild red rice (an ancestor of the cultivated crop) with six varieties of cultivated rice determined that the red rice, already considered a weed in cultivated rice fields, substantially outperformed the cultivated rice in trials with elevated CO2 levels.

Crop losses aren't the only problem the exuberant response of weeds to increased CO2 levels is likely to cause.

Studies have found, for example, that:

The reason for the greater response of weeds to higher concentrations of CO2 is believed to be genetic diversity.

Most of the plants considered weeds by humans are pioneer plants that are designed to quickly colonize and stabilize disturbed and fragmented ecosystems, then make way for more desirable species over time in a process known as succession. As a result, weeds have a very high level of genetic variation designed to allow them to adapt rapidly to sudden changes in water, sunlight, temperature, nutrient levels, and many other factors.

Crops, selectively bred by humans for certain characteristics, have significantly less genetic diversity and therefore cannot adapt as quickly to changes in the environment around them. Crop plants also tend to require higher nutrient levels than weeds to grow successfully, limiting growth even among crop species that benefit the most from elevated CO2 levels.

The sheer variety of weeds versus crops is also a problem. Many crops plants use a form of photosynthesis called C3. In preliminary studies, C3 plants have been found to utilize increased carbon dioxide levels more efficiently than type C4 photosynthesis, which is common among certain types of annual weeds. Unfortunately, with only about 45 major crop species and more than 400 weeds designated "noxious" in the United States alone, there will always be a C3 weed hanging around nearby ready to take over where a struggling C4 weed leaves off.

Likewise, plants native to intact ecosystems have typically evolved to fill a very specific niche within that ecosystem and are similarly slow to adapt to changes. When habitats are disrupted, the weeds move in and quickly out-compete native plants struggling to adapt to the changed conditions.

What Can We Do?

A "planet of weeds," in the words of science writer David Quammen, is not yet inevitable.

We can still reverse our course and bring atmospheric CO2 levels back below 350ppm.

In one stroke of luck, the weeds themselves may even be able to assist us in this goal. For example, kudzu, one of the world's most notorious invasive plant disaster stories, is - unsurprisingly - among the weeds that benefits from increased CO2 levels. Kudzu also shows great promise as a source of biofuel!

Wild and weedy ancestors of crop plants can also be used to increase agricultural diversity through careful crop breeding.

Another important goal should be to preserve the world's remaining intact ecosystems, and find ways to reduce our impact on ecosystems that have already been disturbed or fragmented by human activity. Intact ecosystems not only fight off invasion by foreign weeds more easily than disturbed ecosystems, they also offer superior carbon sequestration abilities and other ecological benefits, such as cleaning and recirculating air and water, pollinating crops, mitigating floods, building soil, keeping pests in check, and more. Old growth forests store 60% more carbon than plantation forests. Perennial grasslands and natural wetlands are also excellent carbon sinks. Large scale efforts to restore natural ecosystems and increase planting of native species by home and land owners can help increase the populations and genetic diversity of desirable plants, improving their chances of survival.


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    • embee77 profile image

      embee77 7 years ago

      Hear, hear, Kerry. You've done a fine job of pulling together facts to explain the severity of the climate change problem. We are in crisis mode and it does my heart good to know so many Hubbers understand and want to reverse global warming. I just found out about the group called On 10/10/10, they plan a Day to Celebrate Climate Solutions, with "work parties" all over the world. Check it out! And thank you!!

    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 7 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      Very good information, Kerry, I was not aware of any of this, though I did know a little about global warming. Sounds like helpful advice to have in environment preservation. (:v

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

      Very good hub Kerry. I learned a lot here. Thanks for posting.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 7 years ago from Northern, California

      Makes me of the old Twilght Zone series when the plants became man eatters....not so far off. Rising carbon and the succession of undesired plant life is a disturbing reality at best. A very captivating hub kerry. Thanks for the information.

    • reddog1027 profile image

      reddog1027 7 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      I learned a great deal from this hub. This is just another reason to take better care of this world God gave to us.

    • William R. Wilson profile image

      William R. Wilson 7 years ago from Knoxville, TN

      Great post Kerry. The claim that CO2 will help agriculture also overlooks the fact that rising temperatures will disrupt weather patterns and create problems for food production. Global warming = more droughts and more storms.

    • kerryg profile image

      kerryg 7 years ago from USA

      DiamondRN, that depends on your definition of "tropical paradise." The Early and Middle Miocene, about 20-15 million years ago, was one of the most recent periods of CO2 levels comparable to our own. During that period, global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) higher than they are today and sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher.

      At several other points in Earth's past, CO2 levels were many times higher, but were offset by lower levels of solar activity. I think in the cases of the extremely high levels of atmospheric CO2 during the Ordovician period (possibly more than 5000 ppm), the lack of plants probably played a role. At that stage, the only terrestrial plants were lichens and liverworts.

      Another high point came at about 2000ppm (believed to be the result of high levels of volcanic activity) during the time of the dinosaurs, and for that I'll accept your claims of a tropical paradise, though again, not necessarily one in which humans would be eager to live! Giant plants produced giant herbivores, which in turn led to giant carnivores. The Cretaceous also had much higher sea levels than today.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Thank was an interesting read. Well who would have thought that. What happened to the clever scientists yelling all the time? Another defeat after the so-called Global Warming. Why don't they all give up?

    • DiamondRN profile image

      Bob Diamond RPh 7 years ago from Charlotte, NC USA

      When we had 2 or 3 times as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as we do now, the earth was a tropical paradise. It sounds like the more CO2 the better.

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 7 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Great. So now the noxious weeds will flourish. Thanks for writing this informative hub.


    • HealthyHanna profile image

      HealthyHanna 7 years ago from Utah

      Interesting. I have heard a little about htis before, but not much.

    • thegreenerme profile image

      thegreenerme 7 years ago

      This sounds like a big problem. I have enough weeds where I live already! Those are some interesting statistics, thanks for sharing.

    • chirls profile image

      chirls 7 years ago from Indiana (for now)

      Interesting take on climate change! I've read about the potential impacts on agriculture, but not about the impact on weeds. Thanks for the information. :)