China’s Air Pollution Sharply Limits CO2 Uptake by Plants on Large Scale, Study Shows

The exceptionally high levels of surface ozone, aerosol particles, and other air pollutants in China are damaging plants and interfering with their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK said that elevated levels of these pollutants in many parts of China are oxidizing plant cells and weakening the process of leaf photosynthesis and CO2 uptake. The impact of the ozone damage is so widespread that it actually has an effect on the regional carbon balance and impedes efforts to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gases, according to the study, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

“It is a stark warning that action needs to be taken now to tackle the effects man-made pollution is having on this part of the world before it is too late,” said the paper’s co-author, Nadine Unger, a mathematician at Exeter.

Unger noted that aerosol particles can have some climate benefits by scattering light and cooling temperatures, but that the ozone vegetation damage “far outstrips” any of the particles’ cooling effects.

A hazy view of Ulanqab, China.

A hazy view of Ulanqab, China. CLAY GILLILAND/FLICKR