Plants and Carbon

By Connor Newman

When people think about saving the environment and working toward doing something about climate change, it’s pretty normal to think things like – switch to paper straws, buy electric and save gas, support using solar power. With 150 million tons of single-use plastic being produced every year and fossil fuels being burned at unprecedented rates, these are of course noble undertakings. However, many do not consider the hardest working climate stabilizing organisms on our planet – plants.

How plants use carbon affects their response to climate change - Tech  Explorist

Plants clean the air we breathe, sequester carbon, and dominate the small water cycles that exist over land masses, just by doing what they do. When a plant photosynthesizes carbon dioxide is actually pulled out of the atmosphere, the carbon is turned into sugar and that nasty “dioxide” is turned into just plain old O2, as in the kind that we breathe. Not only is this process not part of a tax payer funded initiative, nor does it have to balance the dichotomy of being extremely resource intensive to set up for its “sustainable” end goal, but it has literally been solar-powered since the dawn of time

So where does the carbon go?

It gets sequestered in a more complex, sustainable, and sophisticated way than any scientist or team of engineers have been able to even approach. Carbon is the only element on the periodic table to get its own dedicated branch of chemistry, for good reason. All life on this planet is carbon-based. So not only is the plant made of carbon, but some of that carbon is transferred to the grazing animal that eats it, then to the wolf, then the vultures, then the beetles, earthworms, and microorganisms. Some of the carbon that the plant turns into sugar – actually about 40% – is pushed out through the roots and used to feed beneficial consortiums of bacteria and even fungi.

Some astute biology students may even be thinking “ah, but what about respiration? Where does that CO2 go?”

It’s true, plants do respire and produce about as much CO2 as they break down (at least in the sense of a balanced chemical equation). To be more precise, plant roots do the respiring and that CO2 is released into the soil. Healthy soil, which is about 25% water, actually dissolves that CO2 into compounds like carbonic acid – key mechanisms for braking down solid rock and creating even more healthy soil. As it turns out, the soil is actually the key to the whole carbon sequestration thing. While carbon may remain in an organism for a time – a tremendous amount of carbon might be “sequestered” in an oak tree for a couple of centuries – it is the carbon content in the soil that gets really exciting. Something like 3100 gigatons (3100 billion metric tons) of carbon exists in land ecosystems and about 80% of that is found in the soil. Unfortunately, this enormous store of sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared and the land is tilled, claiming about a third of total COemissions.

What’s the solution?

The truth is, there is no silver bullet. Reducing consumption of fossil fuel-intensive plastics and transportation will of course help, but simply letting the plants grow and do their thing is a powerful step forward. Look for ways to support plant growth around your own home and workplace – keep in mind that the more flowers, bushes, and trees there are, the less grass there is to mow! Support your local park and green spaces and talk to your local extension agent (yes, even Charlotte has an extension office) and find out how to get involved in community gardens and wetland planting initiatives. Make your voice heard by knowing who supports greening land and who just can’t get enough of the Carolina red clay. Don’t forget about those of us that grow plants as a way of life! Support farms, markets, ranchers, and co-ops that encourage no-till, intercropping techniques, and don’t leave their soil bare. There are powerful ways to get involved beyond using paper straws and buying an electric car.