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Global Warming: Plants Absorbing More CO2 Than We Thought

Oct 14, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

Global warming may be slightly less devastating to the Earth than feared, as new research has found that plants can absorb more carbon dioxide than we previously thought.

Climate models have grossly underestimated the power of our plants because they failed to take into account that when carbon dioxide (CO2) builds up in the atmosphere, plants actually thrive, become larger, and are able to soak up more CO2. As part of photosynthesis - a natural cycle that helps plants convert sunlight into energy - plants capture CO2 to help them grow and then release oxygen as a waste product.

Just from this natural process alone, scientists estimated that living things absorbed as much as 16 percent more of the harmful greenhouse gas than previously thought.

"There is a time lag between scientists who study fundamental processes and modellers who model those processes in large scale model," Dr. Lianhong Gu at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States, who was involved in the study, explained to BBC News.

"It takes time for the two groups to understand each other."

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So, to avoid underplaying plants' ability to absorb CO2, a team at Wyoming University looked more closely at plants and trees by analyzing how CO2 spreads slowly inside leaves - a process called mesophyll diffusion.

According to the study, carbon acts like a fertilizer that accelerates plants growth. Between 1901 and 2100, plants absorbed 1,057 billion tons of carbon, rather than the previously estimated 915 billion tons - a 16 percent increase.

"The terrestrial biosphere may absorb more CO2 than previously thought," lead author Professor Ying Sun, of Wyoming University, told The Telegraph.

The new work may help set the record straight and clarify past climate models, but it does not, however, downplay the urgency in dealing with global warming.

While the research does offer some hope, researchers emphasize that plants make it "slightly easier to fulfill the target" of keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) - slightly being the operative word.

Back in August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in a report that the world faces "severe, widespread and irreversible" effects of climate change if drastic action isn't immediately taken, meaning cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels.

"The level and speed of greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed to avoid dangerous levels of climate change are not altered by this new study," said Dr. Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University College London.

Climate expert Peter Cox at the University of Exeter, added: "Avoiding two degrees of global warming is a huge challenge for humanity even if this effect is taken into account."

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