Greening the planet with fossil fuels

It’s widely agreed that burning petroleum and other hydrocarbons is steadily increasing the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide. There are suspicions there could be other causes, because the rise in CO2 doesn’t reflect the hydrocarbon usage curve, which shows a lot more variability. But, still, the conventional opinion deprecates the use of “fossil” fuels because increased CO2 will cause dangerous climatic changes (global warming). However one also reads that more CO2 is making the Earth greener — more CO2 means plants are growing faster and larger. This article by Matt Ridley in the WSJ a week ago (rerun at GWPF) mentions two further reasons to thank the use of hydrocarbons — it saves trees and gentle warming boosts plant growth. — Richard Treadgold

How Fossil Fuels Have Greened The Planet


This is an adopted article.

Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally? Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, over-development and ecosystem destruction.

This possibility was first suspected in 1985 by Charles Keeling, the scientist whose meticulous record of the content of the air atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii first alerted the world to the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mr. Keeling’s famous curve showed not only a year-by-year increase in carbon dioxide levels but a season-by-season oscillation in the concentration.

Satellites show that the amount of green vegetation has been increasing for three decades straight.

During summers in the Northern Hemisphere, the Earth breathes in carbon dioxide as green plants (most of which are north of the equator) absorb the gas and turn it into carbohydrate. In the northern winter, the Earth breathes the gas out again, as the summer’s leaves rot.

Mr. Keeling and colleagues noticed that the depth of the breathing had increased in Hawaii by 20% since the 1960s: The Earth was taking in more carbon dioxide each northern summer and giving out more each winter. Since the inhalation is done by green leaves, they reasoned, the amount of greenery on the planet must be growing larger. In the 1980s forest biologists started to report striking increases in the growth rates of trees and the density of forests: in Douglas firs in British Columbia, Scots pines in Finland, bristlecone pines in Colorado and even tropical rain forests.


Around the same time, a NASA scientist named Compton Tucker found that he could map global vegetation changes by calculating a “Normalized Difference Vegetation Index” (NDVI) from the data produced by a satellite sensor. The data confirmed Mr. Keeling’s suspicion: Greenery was on the increase. At first, this was thought to be a northern phenomenon, caused by faster growth in the great spruce and birch forests of Siberia and Canada, but the satellites showed it was happening all over the world and especially strongly in the Amazon and African rain forests.

Using the NDVI, one team this year reported that “over the last few decades of the 20th century, terrestrial ecosystems acted as net carbon sinks,” i.e., they absorbed more carbon than they were emitting, and “net greening was reported in all biomes,” though the effect had slowed down in recent years.

The latest and most detailed satellite data, which is yet to be published but was summarized in an online lecture last July by Ranga Myneni of Boston University, confirms that the greening of the Earth has now been going on for 30 years. Between 1982 and 2011, 20.5% of the world’s vegetated area got greener, while just 3% grew browner; the rest showed no change.

What explains this trend? Man-made nitrogen fertilizer causes crops to grow faster, but it is having little effect on forests. There are essentially two possibilities: climate and carbon dioxide itself. Warmer, wetter weather should cause more vegetation to grow. But even without warming, an increase in carbon dioxide should itself accelerate growth rates of plants. CO2 is a scarce resource that plants have trouble scavenging from the air, and plants grow faster with higher levels of CO2 to inhale.

Dr. Myneni reckons that it is now possible to distinguish between these two effects in the satellite data, and he concludes that 50% is due to “relaxation of climate constraints,” i.e., warming or rainfall, and roughly 50% is due to carbon dioxide fertilization itself. In practice, the two interact. A series of experiments has found that plants tolerate heat better when CO2 levels are higher.

The inescapable if unfashionable conclusion is that the human use of fossil fuels has been causing the greening of the planet in three separate ways: first, by displacing firewood as a fuel; second, by warming the climate; and third, by raising carbon dioxide levels, which raise plant growth rates.

The Wall Street Journal, 5 January 2013

Thanks to the GWPF

8 Thoughts on “Greening the planet with fossil fuels

  1. The above is true for crops and plantations but not for steady state natural forest. There is still significant net deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia which more than counteracts the productivity upside.
    Matt Ridley’s credibility has taken a hit since this prediction in 1993 and the spectacular failure of Northern Rock.

  2. Matt Ridley took most of his WSJ article from the work of Nic Lewis, who has been posting extensively on Realclimate, Bishop Hill etc recently

    To me, Nic appears to know what he is talking about.

  3. On a related note, Gavin Schmidt was berating the WSJ and Lewis for using modal and median values for CS, claiming that the IPCC use a mean value from the PDFs. However, in this diagram from AR4, it appears that they do use modal and medians, not means

    h/t commenter Alex Harvey on BH:

  4. Matt Ridley responds to Tim Lambert @Deltoid on his “failed predictions”

  5. Richard C (NZ) on January 16, 2013 at 2:57 pm said:

    Lambert took a knife to a gunfight.

    Matt Ridley very helpfully includes John Christy’s EPS update of his EPW Fig 2.1 that I hadn’t found in jpg form anywhere until now:-


    “First, the IPCC’s many models, only two of which looks any good at this stage. The rest have all overshot the real world by some margin. Woops.”

    The blue line (one of “only two”) right between the satellite and surface-based observations is the Russian Academy of Sciences INM-CM4 model. If the latest decadal prediction from UKMO using their new HadGEM3 model were added (it was too late for CMIP5), it would track the level and trajectory of the surface-based observations and the second of the “only two” projections (black/dark green, don’t know the model).

    That means only 3 (or maybe 4) models are practically useful right now; the rest are useless. I’m sure that by 2017 we’ll know if those 3 have any validity or not. My own seat-of-the-pants prediction says that by 2017 a minor downward inflexion will be evident i.e. the beginnings of a 1990s level regime. I can see no reason whatsoever for temperatures to be elevated above 2002 or 2010 levels. Ocean heat release will keep temperatures elevated for some time yes, but not boosted even by a big El Nino. That would only take the level up on a par with 2010, not above it.

    Matt Ridley’s seat-of-the-pants prediction has stood up well over 20 years but to call it now is way too premature (and incorrect anyway).

  6. Alexander K on January 16, 2013 at 4:29 pm said:

    When you cherrypick out-of-context quotes I guess you can make a case for anything you wish, Simon – read Matt’s rebuttal of Lambert’s silliness in WUWT. If you can bring yourself to focus on something rational, then you may realise where the egregious Lambert got it wrong.

  7. Regarding Ridley and Northern Rock, he is quite opening remorseful about this situation.

    Did he take a massive payout after the government bailout? I don’t think so. If he did I would think less of the man but he seems the genuine article to me.

  8. Australis on January 18, 2013 at 12:30 pm said:


    This is a very strange post. You apparently think the earth cannot be greening because the messenger got a sentence wrong 20 years ago. How does that logic work? It seems to be an extreme example of the authority fallacy, where the interpretation of scientific data is wholly dependent on your subjective assessment of the previous fallibility of other commentators.

    What happened here is a fine example of the flaws of the authority approach. It turns out that the chosen sentence Ridley wrote in 1993 (one of tens of thousands of sentences from this professional writer) was not wrong after all.

    I presume it follows that the earth must be greening.

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