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CO2 Removal And Vegetation

November 19, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 47

For the past few years, I've been reading with interest the articles and correspondence dealing with the current increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its predicted effect on global warming. I am puzzled by the seeming lack of attention to one important aspect of the situation: the amount of carbon dioxide removed temporarily from the atmosphere by trees and other vegetation and how this removal can be increased by their genetic modification.

A significant amount of CO2 is put into the atmosphere from natural sources such as volcanoes, forest fires, and decaying vegetation, and a significant amount is removed by growing plants of all kinds. On top of this natural balance, humans are adding to the CO2 by our consumption of fossil fuels. It seems that up to a certain point in history, all was more or less in balance. Now, with our increasing industrial activity and consequent energy consumption, more CO2 is being put into the atmosphere than can be absorbed by the current types and quantities of growing plants.

Most of the effort toward solving this problem seems directed toward reducing human-generated CO2. In the next few decades, such an approach is doomed to failure. Political problems and rapidly increasing industrial activity in China and India will surely counteract any savings by conservation and renewable-energy activities in the U.S. and Europe.

Therefore, why don't we focus on increasing the amount of CO2 removed by trees and plants? Only a small portion of the sun's incoming energy is used by vegetation, so that is not the limitation. And with a significant increase in the CO2 content of the atmosphere, the principal reactant used by plants is higher in concentration.

So why don't I read about research being done on genetic modification to make trees and plants utilize the more favorable conditions for growth, thereby increasing the amount of CO2 absorbed? After all, isn't that the way the fossil fuels were formed in the first place, eons ago?

I remember reading an article in the 1960s or '70s that millions of people were doomed to starvation unless a big new fertilizer plant was built every month for the next 10 years. Then along came the "green revolution" type of rice that saved the day. Let's have another development that will counteract the current imbalance of CO2 generation versus removal.

James D. Bushnell
Berkeley Heights, N.J.



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