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It’s All About The CO2

Sell all your bicycles. Forget about buying a Prius®. Drive the biggest gas-guzzler you can find. Crank up that home and work air conditioning, especially if you get your electricity from coal-fired power plants.

Yes, your houseplants – all green (photosynthetic) plants, for that matter (with, perhaps, a few exceptions) – want you to increase your carbon footprint. That is, burn as much fossil fuel as humanly possible, so that you maximize your CO2 output. This is because most green plants currently need and want more CO2.

Why?

Well, at the present time, most plants are “gasping” for CO2, somewhat like you would probably be “gasping” for O2 if you were hiking around Machu Picchu, at nearly 8,000 feet (2,430 meters) in elevation.

Allow me to explain.

When plants were colonizing the land – roughly, 400 to 500 million years ago (MYA) – Earth’s atmosphere may have had over 20 times the current level of CO2. (Please see here for atmospheric carbon dioxide through geologic time.)

By the way, do you know what the amount of CO2 is in our atmosphere?

In general, Earth’s atmosphere currently contains about 0.04% CO2 by volume (often expressed at 400 parts per million or ppm). Sometimes people have a hard time getting their heads around proportions expressed in this way. Most, however, can understand relative amounts of money. So let’s say that all the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere add up to $100 (analogous to 100%). If so, then carbon dioxide’s share would only amount to about four pennies. In contrast, oxygen’s share would be about $21 (or 21%).

The early photosynthetic land plants (400 to 500 MYA) were probably luxuriating in nearly 1% atmospheric CO2, compared to today’s paltry 0.04% CO2. It’s no wonder that plants are “cheering us on” as we continue to burn fossil fuels, releasing more and more CO2 into the air.

So, can we expect ever-increasing plant growth leading to improved crop yields as we continue to pump more CO2 into the atmosphere?

Unfortunately, probably not.

Why?

Well, partly because of CO2‘s “greenhouse effect” on climate (which, I presume, you’re already familiar with) that is causing “global weirding”.

But also, it turns out that increased atmospheric CO2 has profound short-term (minutes) and long-term (days to years) effects on plant physiology and plant development, such as a decrease in leaf stomata.

More on this to come…

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