Trees and Carbon Dioxide

By Jill Moss

This is the VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT.

Scientists have long believed one way to stop the Earth's atmosphere from warming is by planting more trees. The idea is that more trees will take in or absorb some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a gas released by cars, factories and other human activities. The gas traps heat in the Earth's atmosphere, which warms the planet. However, two new studies have found that trees may not be as helpful in reducing carbon dioxide as had been thought.

The first study was done at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Researchers pumped extra carbon dioxide into a test area where pine trees were growing. The trees grew thirty-four percent faster during the first three years. However, in time, the trees slowed to about their normal growth rate. The scientists say this is because trees need other nutrients, such as nitrogen.

In the second study, researchers from Duke and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine examined the soil around trees. They discovered that as the leaves broke down into the soil, all the carbon was not trapped in the soil. Much of it was released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

The findings of the two studies were published last month in Nature magazine. They suggest there is limited value in planting trees to reduce the carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere.

Forest planting has been a part of negotiations on a world agreement to reduce greenhouse gases that scientists believe cause global warming. The United States, Canada, Japan and some other industrial countries have supported the idea. But this new research suggests the idea is not as effective as environmental activists had thought. Scientist Ram Oren of Duke University led the study on tree growth. He says that earlier estimates on the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide were overly hopeful.

Some scientists not involved in the studies say the research provides some of the first evidence on how trees react to carbon dioxide. Other scientists say the research disputes a belief among some coal and power companies. The companies say that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not create harmful global warming. Instead, they say it will increase forests and other plants.

This VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT was written by Jill Moss.

Voice of America Special English