Atmospheric carbon dips below 400 ppm: photosynthesis to the rescue? No

Have a glance at Item A1 over on the left sidebar: you will see, if today is August 1 2015, that it shows a figure of 399.54 parts per million. This means that the atmosphere at Mauna Loa Hawaii is, currently, 0.039954 percent carbon dioxide (CO2). That is down 1.2 parts per million from the 400.74 ppm it was yesterday. Should we celebrate this decline, given that climate scientists have been warning us, in ever-urgent tones, against an increase? No.

Canada’s Boreal forest. You are looking at only the tip of an enormous iceberg. What you can’t see is the subterranean component of a vast global symbiosis, between trees and fungi. Threes are phototrophs: they “eat” light, by using its power to convert carbon dioxide and water to glucose. The fungi with which the trees live could be called “glucotrophs”: they eat the glucose the trees make. In return, they help the tree harvest essential but scarce nutrients from the soil, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Canada’s Boreal forest. You are looking at only the tip of an enormous iceberg. What you can’t see is the subterranean component of a vast global symbiosis, between trees and fungi. Trees are phototrophs: they “eat” light, by using its power to convert carbon dioxide and water to glucose. The fungi with which the trees live could be called “glucotrophs”: they eat the glucose the trees make. In return, they help the tree harvest essential but hard-to-get nutrients from the soil, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

It is normal for the readings at Mauna Loa to decline slightly during the northern hemisphere summer. Most man-made CO2 is put into the air in the northern hemisphere: that is where most of the world’s cars, power plants, and industrial plants operate. But in the northern hemisphere summer, broad leaf plants and shrubs are in full leaf, catching as many of the solar photons incoming from the sun as possible and using them, via photosynthesis, to turn CO2 into sugar. Needled conifers, like those that make up most of Canada’s Boreal forest, do the same. The sugar manufactured in photosynthesis goes into making the wood in trees, thereby adding that growth ring you see when you look at a sawn tree stump.

But the sugar that trees make via photosynthesis also feeds the fungi that live in a chemical symbiosis with the trees. The fungal symbiont is much like a human: it breathes in oxygen, eats sugar, and breathes out CO2. As an estimated 85 percent of land plants across our planet live in such a symbiosis with fungi, you can imagine that the world “inventory” of such fungi must be enormous. And it is. Mycologist George Barron writes that each tree has associated with its roots literally hundreds of thousands of kilometers of fungal hyphae (threads). He notes that fungi worldwide return around 80 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year. So, as trees breathe in CO2, fungi breathe it out.

Mankind puts around 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Though this is much less than fungi’s 80 billion tons, it is nevertheless causing global warming because the plant-fungi system is not absorbing it. Many people believe that planting more trees with help to absorb CO2. That is true, they will, but because trees come in a package with fungi, which breathe out CO2, planting trees will serve only to absorb the CO2 from that symbiosis. Which means that if we humans keep dumping billions of tons of CO2 because of our addiction to fossil fuels, atmospheric CO2 concentration will continue to rise.

But what about the decline in atmospheric CO2 mentioned at the top of this article, you might say. Isn’t that because trees in the northern hemisphere are furiously photosynthesizing with all the extra solar photons? Yes. But that doesn’t mean the fungi with which they live will not themselves see a growth spurt to take advantage of the glut of glucose. More fungi, more CO2 through their respiration.

i.e., fungi will experience such a growth spurt. And the readings from Mauna Loa will soon, within a few months, continue the upward climb they have been on since the Keeling station, which measures the CO2 at Mauna Loa, was established in 1959.

If we want to stop that upward climb in atmospheric carbon, then we have to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. My home province, Ontario, is on the verge of realizing it can begin leading the world into the zero carbon energy future. That future will be achieved easily, by simply adding a few new Ontario-designed nuclear plants to the provincial electricity grid, then by converting the provincial inventory of heating furnaces that run on carbon emitting fossil fuels to zero-emission, 100-percent-efficient electric heaters.

In one easy fell swoop, which wouldn’t take much more than a single decade, that will wipe out an entire 30 million ton category from Ontario’s CO2 inventory.

5 comments for “Atmospheric carbon dips below 400 ppm: photosynthesis to the rescue? No

  1. R Budd
    September 3, 2015 at 09:03

    Wish it was likely but not what appears to be happening. Read the LTEP from 2013 and you’ll see the plan is way too cheery about the fossil energy role. It also gives all credit to renewables and natural gas for replacing coal generation, despite nuclear doing ~85% of that work.
    The new reactor builds appear to be unlikely. The depressingly influential On. Clean (Dirty) Air Alliance is lobbying against even the planned refurbs.The low/medium level DGR is in limbo till we get a federal gov’t that puts science ahead of fear mongering. The high level facility is sought after by communities, but watch the anti-lobby go after it as the process moves on.
    All in all, it appears more wind/solar/hydro, more fossil and more “electricity reduction as a virtue” is the near term Ontario future. Enbridge, Suncor, Transalta, Brookfield, OCAA are are happy with that and happy to support this gov’t. The environment and public good gets screwed ,but as long as the green wrap holds together and the NDP stay hopelessly confused on public owned nuclear, it’ll carry on.

    • September 3, 2015 at 12:26

      I’m sometimes tempted to almost agree with the general assessment of the feds and their attitude toward science, until I remember (1) I have kept an R&D project going since 2008 with federal money, and (2) it was the current federal crowd that appointed the current president of the CNSC, who has been nothing if not absolutely pro-science and pro-evidence in his decisions. Unlike his immediate predecessor.

      On the second point, and dovetailing with your critique of the current LTEP: there will be a hearing, in November, after the federal election, on the Darlington refurb. The CNSC just did yet another study into the impact of a severe Fukushima-type “accident” at Darlington (as if a 9-magnitude earthquake and 15-meter tsunami qualify as an accident), and reconfirmed that the impact would be negligible. Likely they based this assessment on the real-world fact of zero deaths, zero hospitalizations from Fukushima.

      Ten bucks says the usual anti-vaxxer suspects trot out the predictable Godzilla hyperbole in that hearing. Neither the federal nor provincial government should pay them any attention, and I guess whether they do or not will say something about how much respect they have for science and facts and evidence.

    • Paul Smith
      January 23, 2017 at 17:30

      Lets talk cost. In the cost of nuclear keep in mind building, operating and decommissioning, all very expensive. Now keep in mind that it is unheard of for a nuclear plant to come in at projected cost, but regularly end up doubling and tripling. https://cleantechnica.com/2016/11/24/vietnam-dumps-nuclear-power-plans-due-costs-doubling/
      https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/07/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-plant-costs-up-to-37bn
      Now add storage of nuclear waste as a permanent problem and cost. Also expect a nuclear plant to take 10-20 years to construct from start. Now compare that to a solar plant that can be up and operating in 6 months. Also compare the cost of kWh of solar compared to today’s nuclear plant and allow for the fact that renewable wind and solar are rapidly dropping in price (-35% between 2014 and 2015) where as nuclear gets more expensive. What will it cost in 15 years?

      • January 23, 2017 at 21:15

        Solar has produced 0.7 percent of Ontario’s electricity in the past 72 hours. It hasn’t been all that cold — only around 0 to 5 in southern Ontario — but that’s still enough to kill by hypothermia.

        But forget about electricity for a second. Ontario’s HEAT load during those 72 hours didn’t drop below around 12 million kilowatts. Your precious solar panels provided ZERO of the power to meet that demand.

        You are telling me that solar panels — which essentially produced no electrical power in the last 72 hours and that cannot no matter how many panels we plaster over the countryside even begin to provide the heat we require — are the wave of the future?

        And that it’s acceptable to build a fleet of gas-fired power plants, which dump half a kilogram of CO2 into our air for every kilowatt-hour of energy they put into the grid, to provide the real electricity just so we can pretend like the Germans that we are clean and green and solar powered?

        The CO2 those gas plants dump into the air will be in the atmosphere and in the oceans long after the fission products in the used nuclear fuel decay into stable elements.

  2. R Budd
    September 5, 2015 at 18:38

    To be honest I was imagining an NDP fed. govt. throwing science to the wind on the Bruce DGR. I’ve been amazed at the totally wacky hyperbole over that project… supposedly capable of filling the Great Lakes with toxic radiation. The best was the mayor of distant Thunderbay expressing fear for his community and trying to rally all Great Lakes mayors to the cause. Beyond the concern over the fed. govt. the international/shared lake aspect turns it into a circus I’m afraid.
    Anyway good and important offerings Steve and I’ll hope for the best outcome.

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